California streams exhibit a wide range of runoff characteristics that are related to the climatologic, topographic, and geologic characteristics of the basins they drain. The annual volume of runoff of a stream, expressed in inches, may be large or small, and daily discharge rates may be highly variable or relatively steady. The bulk of the annual runoff may be storm runoff, or snowmelt runoff, or a combination of both. The streamflow may be ephemeral, intermittent, or perennial; if perennial, base flow may be well sustained or poorly sustained. In this report the various runoff characteristics are identified by numerical index values. They are shown to be related generally to mean annual precipitation, altitude, latitude, and location with respect to the 11 geomorphic provinces in the California Region.
With respect to mean annual precipitation on the watershed, streamflow is generally (1) ephemeral if the mean annual precipitation is less than 10 inches, (2) intermittent if the mean annual precipitation is between 10 and 40 inches, and (3) perennial if the mean annual precipitation is more than 40 inches. Departures from those generalizations are associated with (a) the areal variation of such geologic factors as the infiltration and storage capacities of the rocks underlying the watersheds, and (b) the areal variation of evapotranspiration loss as influenced by varying conditions of climate, soil, vegetal cover, and geologic structure.
Latitude and altitude determine the proportion of the winter precipitation that will be stored for subsequent runoff in the late spring and summer. In general, if a watershed has at least 30 percent of its area above the normal altitude of the snowline on April 1, it will have significant snowmelt runoff. Snowmelt runoff in California is said to be significant if at least 30 percent of the annual runoff occurs during the 4 months, April through July. Storm runoff is said to be predominant if at least 65 percent of the annual runoff occurs during the 6 months, October through March. Base flow (ground-water outflow), as a factor in the regimen of streamflow, is qualified on the basis of the percentage of the mean annual runoff that occurs during the fair-weather months of August and September. If the sum of the August and September runoff exceeds 3.0 percent of the annual runoff, base flow is considered to be well sustained; if the percentage is between 1.5 and 3.0, base flow is considered to be fairly well sustained; if the percentage is less than 1.5, baseflow is considered to be poorly sustained.
The characteristics of duration curves of daily streamflow are influenced by the regimen of runoff. The distribution of daily flow is skewed for all streams, but it is more skewed for streams whose flow is predominantly storm runoff than for streams that carry significantly large quantities of snowmelt. Least skewed is the distribution for streams that carry large quantities of base flow. Either of two characteristics of the duration curve may be used as an index of skew--the percentage of time that the mean discharge is equaled or exceeded or the ratio of the median discharge to the mean discharge. As for variability of daily discharge, the variability of storm-runoff streams is greater than that of snowmelt streams, and the lowest values of variability are associated with streams that carry large quantities of base flow. The index of variability used in this study was the ratio of the discharge equaled or exceeded 10 percent of the time to the discharge equaled or exceeded 90 percent of the time.
The identification of streamflow characteristics by numerical index figures greatly facilitates comparison of the diverse runoff regimens of streams in the California Region.