Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The human factor in seasonal streamflows across natural and managed watersheds of North America


While it is established that climate change and human activities (for example, urbanization, dams) alter streamflows, there exists considerable uncertainty regarding the relative magnitude of their contributions. Most studies have focused on annual flows and found trends to be dominated by climate. Here we compare trends in seasonal flow totals for 315 natural and 1,957 managed watersheds across North America over 60 years (1950–2009). We find an amplification of seasonal flow trends in 44% of the managed watersheds, while 48% of the watersheds exhibit flow dampening. The magnitudes of amplification (20–167%) and dampening (5–52%) are substantial and vary seasonally. Multivariate models reveal that while rainfall, slope and forest cover are the key drivers of seasonal trends in natural watersheds, canals, impervious areas and dam storage dominate the responses in managed watersheds. Our findings of human-driven seasonal flow alterations highlight the need to develop adaptation strategies that mitigate the associated negative impacts.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Fig. 1: Seasonal streamflow trends over 60 years (1950–2009).
Fig. 2: The distribution of managed watersheds across the magnitudes of the four alteration metrics for each season.
Fig. 3: Spatial patterns of alteration over 60 years (1950–2009).
Fig. 4: Implications of flow amplification and dampening (RPP and RNN) in managed watersheds on water security (floods and droughts), and the potential human factors that drive such flow alterations.
Fig. 5: The ranking of key variables derived from RF models of seasonal flow trends in natural and managed watersheds.

Data availability

Flow datasets used in the study are publicly available from the United States Geological Survey ( and the Water Survey of Canada ( The Gauges II datasets are publicly available through the USGS ( The climatic datasets used in the study are publicly available from Oregon State University (


  1. Vörösmarty, C. J., Green, P., Salisbury, J. & Lammers, R. B. Global water resources: vulnerability from climate change and population growth. Science 289, 284–288 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Milly, P. C. D., Dunne, K. A. & Vecchia, A. V. Global pattern of trends in streamflow and water availability in a changing climate. Nature 438, 347–350 (2005).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Barnett, T. P. et al. Human-induced changes in the hydrology of the western United States. Science 319, 1080–1083 (2008).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Berghuijs, W. R., Woods, R. A. & Hrachowitz, M. A precipitation shift from snow towards rain leads to a decrease in streamflow. Nat. Clim. Change 4, 583–586 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. in Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Current State and Trends (eds Rijsberman, F. et al.) Ch. 7 (Island Press, 2005);

  6. Graf, W. L. Dam nation: a geographic census of American dams and their large-scale hydrologic impacts. Water Resour. Res. 35, 1305–1311 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Dynesius, M. & Nilsson, C. Fragmentation and flow regulation of river systems in the northern third of the world. Science 266, 753–762 (1994).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Adam, J. C., Hamlet, A. F. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Implications of global climate change for snowmelt hydrology in the twenty-first century. Hydrol. Process. 23, 962–972 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Burn, D. H. & Whitfield, P. H. Changes in cold region flood regimes inferred from long-record reference gauging stations. Water Resour. Res. 53, 2643–2658 (2017).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Lettenmaier, D. P., Wood, E. F. & Wallis, J. R. Hydro-climatological trends in the continental United States, 1948–88. J. Clim. 7, 586–607 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Sagarika, S., Kalra, A. & Ahmad, S. Evaluating the effect of persistence on long-term trends and analyzing step changes in streamflows of the continental United States. J. Hydrol. 517, 36–53 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Birsan, M. V., Molnar, P., Burlando, P. & Pfaundler, M. Streamflow trends in Switzerland. J. Hydrol. 314, 312–329 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Stahl, K. et al. Hydrology and Earth system sciences streamflow trends in Europe: evidence from a dataset of near-natural catchments. Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. 14, 2367–2382 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Dettinger, M. D. & Diaz, H. F. Global characteristics of stream flow seasonality and variability. J. Hydrometeorol. 1, 289–310 (2000).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. McCabe, G. J. & Wolock, D. M. A step increase in streamflow in the conterminous United States. Geophys. Res. Lett. 29, 8–11 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Rice, J. S., Emanuel, R. E., Vose, J. M. & Nelson, S. A. C. Continental US streamflow trends from 1940 to 2009 and their relationships with watershed spatial characteristics. Water Resour. Res. 51, 6262–6275 (2015).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Ficklin, D. L., Abatzoglou, J. T., Robeson, S. M., Null, S. E. & Knouft, J. H. Natural and managed watersheds show similar responses to recent climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 115, 8553–8557 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Dudley, R. W., Hirsch, R. M., Archfield, S. A., Blum, A. G. & Renard, B. Low streamflow trends at human-impacted and reference basins in the United States. J. Hydrol. 580, 124254 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Bhaskar, A. S., Hopkins, K. G., Smith, B. K., Stephens, T. A. & Miller, A. J. Hydrologic signals and surprises in US streamflow records during urbanization. Water Resour. Res. 56, 1–22 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Dethier, E. N., Sartain, S. L., Renshaw, C. E. & Magilligan, F. J. Spatially coherent regional changes in seasonal extreme streamflow events in the United States and Canada since 1950. Sci. Adv. 6, eaba5939 (2020).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Adam, J. C., Haddeland, I., Su, F. & Lettenmaier, D. P. Simulation of reservoir influences on annual and seasonal streamflow changes for the Lena, Yenisei, and Ob’ rivers. J. Geophys. Res. Atmos. 112, D24114 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Haddeland, I. et al. Global water resources affected by human interventions and climate change. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 3251–3256 (2014).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Jaramillo, F. & Destouni, G. Local flow regulation and irrigation raise global human water consumption and footprint. Science 350, 1248–1251 (2015).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Veldkamp, T. I. E. et al. Water scarcity hotspots travel downstream due to human interventions in the 20th and 21st century. Nat. Commun. 8, 15697 (2017).

  25. Gudmundsson, L. et al. Globally observed trends in mean and extreme river flow attributed to climate change. Science 371, 1159–1162 (2021).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Luce, C. H. & Holden, Z. A. Declining annual streamflow distributions in the Pacific Northwest United States, 1948–2006. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, 2–7 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Kim, J. S. & Jain, S. High-resolution streamflow trend analysis applicable to annual decision calendars: a western United States case study. Climatic Change 102, 699–707 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Zhang, X., Harvey, K. D., Hogg, W. D. & Yuzyk, T. R. Trends in Canadian streamflow. Water Resour. 37, 987–998 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Yang, Y. et al. Streamflow stationarity in a changing world. Environ. Res. Lett. 16, 064096 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Vörösmarty, C. J. et al. Global threats to human water security and river biodiversity. Nature 467, 555–561 (2010).

    Article  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Magilligan, F. J. & Nislow, K. H. Changes in hydrologic regime by dams. Geomorphology 71, 61–78 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Wing, O. E. J., Pinter, N., Bates, P. D. & Kousky, C. New insights into US flood vulnerability revealed from flood insurance big data. Nat. Commun. 11, 1444 (2020).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Chalise, D. R., Sankarasubramanian, A. & Ruhi, A. Dams and climate interact to alter river flow regimes across the United States. Earths Future 9, e2020EF001816 (2021).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  34. Rood, S. B. et al. Declining summer flows of Rocky Mountain rivers: changing seasonal hydrology and probable impacts on floodplain forests. J. Hydrol. 349, 397–410 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Viviroli, D., Dürr, H. H., Messerli, B., Meybeck, M. & Weingartner, R. Mountains of the world, water towers for humanity: typology, mapping, and global significance. Water Resour. Res. 43, 7447 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  36. Freeman, M. C., Pringle, C. M. & Jackson, C. R. Hydrologic connectivity and the contribution of stream headwaters to ecological integrity at regional scales. J. Am. Water Resour. Assoc. 43, 5–14 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  37. Lorenzo-Lacruz, J., Vicente-Serrano, S. M., López-Moreno, J. I., Morán-Tejeda, E. & Zabalza, J. Recent trends in Iberian streamflows (1945–2005). J. Hydrol. 414–415, 463–475 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-Making (World Commission on Dams, 2016).

  39. Suttles, K. M. et al. Assessment of hydrologic vulnerability to urbanization and climate change in a rapidly changing watershed in the Southeast US. Sci. Total Environ. 645, 806–816 (2018).

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  40. IPCC Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis (eds Masson-Delmotte, V. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2021);

  41. Falcone, J. A., Carlisle, D. M., Wolock, D. M. & Meador, M. R. GAGES: a stream gage database for evaluating natural and altered flow conditions in the conterminous United States. Ecology 91, 621–621 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  42. Brimley, B. et al. Reference Hydrometric Basin Network (Government of Canada, 1999);

  43. PRISM Climate Data (PRISM Climate Group, 2020);

  44. Kendall, M. Rank Correlation Methods (Griffin, 2011).

  45. Singh, N. K. & Borrok, D. M. A Granger causality analysis of groundwater patterns over a half-century. Sci. Rep. 9, 12828 (2019).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  46. Hamed, K. H. & Ramachandra Rao, A. A modified Mann-Kendall trend test for autocorrelated data. J. Hydrol. 204, 182–196 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Sen, P. K. Estimates of the regression coefficient based on Kendall’s tau. J. Am. Stat. Assoc. 63, 1379–1389 (1968).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Biau, G. & Scornet, E. A random forest guided tour. Test 25, 197–227 (2016).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  49. Singh, N. K., Emanuel, R. E., Nippgen, F., McGlynn, B. L. & Miniat, C. F. The relative influence of storm and landscape characteristics on shallow groundwater responses in forested headwater catchments. Water Resour. Res. 54, 9883–9900 (2018).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  50. Falcone, J. A. Geospatial Attributes of Gages for Evaluating Streamflow (US Geological Survey, 2011).

  51. Liaw, A. & Wiener, M. Classification and regression by randomForest. R News 2, 18–22 (2002).

    Google Scholar 

  52. Friedman, J. H. Greedy function approximation: a gradient boosting machine. Ann. Stat. 29, 1189–1232 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The research published in this paper was supported by the ‘Lake Futures’ project under the Global Water Futures program, funded by the Canada First Research Excellence Fund.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



N.K.S. and N.B.B. conceptualized the project. N.K.S. designed the methodology. N.K.S. and N.B.B. conducted the investigation. N.K.S. and N.B.B. did the visualization. N.B.B. supervised. N.K.S. wrote the original draft. N.B.B. reviewed and edited the draft.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Nitin K. Singh.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Peer review

Peer review information

Nature Sustainability thanks the anonymous reviewers for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Additional information

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–3 and Tables 1–4.

Reporting Summary.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Singh, N.K., Basu, N.B. The human factor in seasonal streamflows across natural and managed watersheds of North America. Nat Sustain 5, 397–405 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing