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Estimates of Natural and Unimpaired Flows for the Central Valley of California: Water Years 1922-2014 (draft)

Guobiao Huang | March 1st, 2016

Estimating regional water supplies that would have occurred absent human activities is a common practice in water resources planning. In this report, such theoretical water supply estimates are referred to as “unimpaired” flow. Since 1980, the Department of Water Resources (Department) has periodically published estimates of Central Valley unimpaired flows. In spite of the Department’s previous attempts to distinguish between natural conditions and its calcula tion of theoretical unimpaired flows, unimpaired flow estimates have frequently been used as a surrogate measure of natural conditions, presumably because natural flow estimates were unavailable. A major objective of this report is to clarify the conceptua l differences between natural and unimpaired flows.

In this report, the term “unimpaired” flow is used to describe a theoretically available water supply assuming existing river channel conditions in the absence of (1) storage regulation for water supply a nd hydropower purposes and (2) stream diversions for agricultural and municipal uses. Unimpaired flow estimates are theoretical in that such conditions have not occurred historically. In pristine watersheds which have undergone little land use change, unim paired flow estimates provide a fixed frame of reference to develop relationships between precipitation, runoff, and water supply based on long – term hydrologic records. For many years these relationships were based on the assumption of stationarity, i.e. that the past is a good indicator of the future. However, global warming now requires hydrologists and water resources managers to analyze non-stationary processes, requiring more sophisticated tools and techniques to quantify future water supplies. This report updates and extends the Department’s previous published estimates of unimpaired flows for 24 Central Valley sub-basins and the Delta. Monthly unimpaired flows are presented for water years 1922 – 2014.


Central Valley, flows, Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta