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No Snow No Flow - The 2015 Snow Drought in the Oregon Cascades

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Created: Jul 06, 2017 at 8:09 p.m.
Last updated: Jul 06, 2017 at 8:17 p.m.
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Hydrologic extremes, such as drought, offer an exceptional opportunity to explore how runoff generation mechanisms and stream networks respond to changing precipitation regimes. The winter of 2014-2015 was the warmest on record in western Oregon, US, with record low snowpacks, and was followed by an anomalously warm, dry spring, resulting in historically low streamflows. But a year like 2015 is more than an outlier meteorological year. It provides a unique opportunity to test fundamental hypotheses for how montane hydrologic systems will respond to anticipated changes in amount and timing of recharge. In particular, the volcanic Cascade Mountains represent a “landscape laboratory” comprised of two distinct runoff regimes: the surface-flow dominated Western Cascade watersheds, with flashy streamflow regimes, rapid baseflow recession, and very low summer flows; and (b) the spring-fed High Cascade watersheds, with a slow-responding streamflow regime, and a long and sustained baseflow recession that maintains late summer streamflow through deep-groundwater contributions to high volume, coldwater springs.
We hypothesize that stream network response to the extremely low snowpack and subsequent recharge varies sharply in these two regions. In surface flow dominated streams, the location of channel heads can migrate downstream, contracting the network longitudinally; the wetted channel width and depth contract laterally as summer recession proceeds and flows diminish. In contrast, in spring-fed streams, channel heads “jump” to the next downstream spring when upper basin spring flow diminishes to zero. Downstream of flowing springs, wetted channel width and depth contract laterally as flows recede.
To test these hypotheses, we conducted a field campaign to measure changing discharge, hydraulic geometry, and channel head location in both types of watersheds throughout the summer and early fall. Multiple cross-section sites were established on 6 streams representing both flow regime types on either side of the Cascade crest. In addition we took Isotopic water samples to determine recharge elevations of receding streams. Taken together these measurements reveal the processes by which drainage networks contract as flows diminish – a fundamental property of montane stream systems both now and in the future.

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Lewis, S. (2017). No Snow No Flow - The 2015 Snow Drought in the Oregon Cascades, HydroShare,

This resource is shared under the Creative Commons Attribution CC BY.


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