Effects of water-supply reservoirs on streamflow in Massachusetts

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5123

Prepared in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection



State and local water-resource managers need modeling tools to help them manage and protect water-supply resources for both human consumption and ecological needs. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, has developed a decision-support tool to estimate the effects of reservoirs on natural streamflow. The Massachusetts Reservoir Simulation Tool is a model that simulates the daily water balance of a reservoir. The reservoir simulation tool provides estimates of daily outflows from reservoirs and compares the frequency, duration, and magnitude of the volume of outflows from reservoirs with estimates of the unaltered streamflow that would occur if no dam were present. This tool will help environmental managers understand the complex interactions and tradeoffs between water withdrawals, reservoir operational practices, and reservoir outflows needed for aquatic habitats.

A sensitivity analysis of the daily water balance equation was performed to identify physical and operational features of reservoirs that could have the greatest effect on reservoir outflows. For the purpose of this report, uncontrolled releases of water (spills or spillage) over the reservoir spillway were considered to be a proxy for reservoir outflows directly below the dam. The ratio of average withdrawals to the average inflows had the largest effect on spillage patterns, with the highest withdrawals leading to the lowest spillage. The size of the surface area relative to the drainage area of the reservoir also had an effect on spillage; reservoirs with large surface areas have high evaporation rates during the summer, which can contribute to frequent and long periods without spillage, even in the absence of water withdrawals. Other reservoir characteristics, such as variability of inflows, groundwater interactions, and seasonal demand patterns, had low to moderate effects on the frequency, duration, and magnitude of spillage. The reservoir simulation tool was used to simulate 35 single- and multiple-reservoir systems in Massachusetts over a 44-year period (water years 1961 to 2004) under two water-use scenarios. The no-pumping scenario assumes no water withdrawal pumping, and the pumping scenario incorporates average annual pumping rates from 2000 to 2004. By comparing the results of the two scenarios, the total streamflow alteration can be parsed into the portion of streamflow alteration caused by the presence of a reservoir and the additional streamflow alteration caused by the level of water use of the system.

For each reservoir system, the following metrics were computed to characterize the frequency, duration, and magnitude of reservoir outflow volumes compared with unaltered streamflow conditions: (1) the median number of days per year in which the reservoir did not spill, (2) the median duration of the longest consecutive period of no-spill days per year, and (3) the lowest annual flow duration exceedance probability at which the outflows are significantly different from estimated unaltered streamflow at the 95-percent confidence level. Most reservoirs in the study do not spill during the summer months even under no-pumping conditions. The median number of days during which there was no spillage was less than 365 for all reservoirs in the study, indicating that, even under reported pumping conditions, the reservoirs refill to full volume and spill at least once during nondrought years, typically in the spring.

Thirteen multiple-reservoir systems consisting of two or three hydrologically connected reservoirs were included in the study. Because operating rules used to manage multiple-reservoir systems are not available, these systems were simulated under two pumping scenarios, one in which water transfers between reservoirs are minimal and one in which reservoirs continually transferred water to intermediate or terminal reservoirs. These two scenarios provided upper and lower estimates of spillage under average pumping conditions from 2000 to 2004.

For sites with insufficient data to simulate daily water balances, a proxy method to estimate the three spillage metrics was developed. A series of 4,000 Monte Carlo simulations of the reservoir water balance were run. In each simulation, streamflow, physical reservoir characteristics, and daily climate inputs were randomly varied. Tobit regression equations that quantify the relation between streamflow alteration and physical and operational characteristics of reservoirs were developed from the results of the Monte Carlo simulations and can be used to estimate each of the three spillage metrics using only the withdrawal ratio and the ratio of the surface area to the drainage area, which are available statewide for all reservoirs.

A graphical user-interface for the Massachusetts Reservoir Simulation Tool was developed in a Microsoft Access environment. The simulation tool contains information for 70 reservoirs in Massachusetts and allows for simulation of additional scenarios than the ones considered in this report, including controlled releases, dam seepage and leakage, demand management plans, and alternative water withdrawal and transfer rules.

Suggested Citation

Levin, S.B., 2016, Effects of water-supply reservoirs on streamflow in Massachusetts: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5123, 35 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Reservoir Simulation Tool
  • Spillage Metrics
  • Sensitivity of Spillage to Reservoir Characteristics
  • Application of the Reservoir Model for Selected Systems
  • Estimating Streamflow Alteration at Previously Unstudied Reservoirs
  • Limitations
  • Summary
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Effects of water-supply reservoirs on streamflow in Massachusetts
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Massachusetts Water Science Center
Report: vii, 35 p.; Software or Model Page
United States
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):