Zero or not? Causes and consequences of zero-flow stream gage readings


Streamflow observations can be used to understand, predict, and contextualize hydrologic, ecological, and biogeochemical processes and conditions in streams. Stream gages are point measurements along rivers where streamflow is measured, and are often used to infer upstream watershed-scale processes. When stream gages read zero, this may indicate that the stream has dried at this location; however, zero-flow readings can also be caused by a wide range of other factors. Our ability to identify whether or not a zero-flow gage reading indicates a dry fluvial system has far reaching environmental implications. Incorrect identification and interpretation by the data user can lead to inaccurate hydrologic, ecological, and/or biogeochemical predictions from models and analyses. Here, we describe several causes of zero-flow gage readings: frozen surface water, flow reversals, instrument error, and natural or human-driven upstream source losses or bypass flow. For these examples, we discuss the implications of zero-flow interpretations. We also highlight additional methods for determining flow presence, including direct observations, statistical methods, and hydrologic models, which can be applied to interpret causes of zero-flow gage readings and implications for reach- and watershed-scale dynamics. Such efforts are necessary to improve our ability to understand and predict surface flow activation, cessation, and connectivity across river networks. Developing this integrated understanding of the wide range of possible meanings of zero-flows will only attain greater importance in a more variable and changing hydrologic climate.

WIREs Water
Sam Zipper
HEAL@KGS PI; Assistant Scientist

I specialize in ecohydrology and hydrogeology of agricultural and urban landscapes.