Previous studies indicate predominantly increasing trends in precipitation across the Western United States, while at the same time, historical streamflow records indicate decreasing summertime streamflow and 25th percentile annual flows. These opposing trends could be viewed as paradoxical, given that several studies suggest that increased annual precipitation will equate to increased annual groundwater recharge, and therefore increased summertime flow. To gain insight on mechanisms behind these potential changes, we rely on a calibrated, integrated surface and groundwater model to simulate climate impacts on surface water/groundwater interactions using 12 general circulation model projections of temperature and precipitation from 2010 to 2100, and evaluate the interplay between snowmelt timing and other hydrologic variables, including streamflow, groundwater recharge, storage, groundwater discharge, and evapotranspiration. Hydrologic simulations show that the timing of peak groundwater discharge to the stream is inversely correlated to snowmelt runoff and groundwater recharge due to the bank storage effect and reversal of hydraulic gradients between the stream and underlying groundwater. That is, groundwater flow to streams peaks following the decrease in stream depth caused by snowmelt recession, and the shift in snowmelt causes a corresponding shift in groundwater discharge to streams. Our results show that groundwater discharge to streams is depleted during the summer due to earlier drainage of shallow aquifers adjacent to streams even if projected annual precipitation and groundwater recharge increases. These projected changes in surface water/groundwater interactions result in more than a 30% decrease in the projected ensemble summertime streamflow. Our findings clarify causality of observed decreasing summertime flow, highlight important aspects of potential climate change impacts on groundwater resources, and underscore the need for integrated hydrologic models in climate change studies.
Additional publication details
Role of surface-water and groundwater interactions on projected summertime streamflow in snow dominated regions : An integrated modeling approach