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

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Abstract 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. This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Methods Science of Water > Hydrological Processes Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness
(a) Map of Kansas (United States) showing regional transitions from perennial to non‐perennial flow between 1961 and 2009 resulting from groundwater pumping from the High Plains aquifer. (b) Time series of discharge (1961–2009) from Arkansas River at Coolidge, KS (USGS gage 07137500) and Arkansas River at Dodge City, KS (USGS gage 07139500) showing increase in zero‐flow occurrences through time associated with groundwater depletion between Coolidge and Dodge City. Points in (a) indicate locations of gaging stations plotted in (b). Perennial/non‐perennial stream map modified from data used in Kansas High Plains Atlas (http://www.kgs.ku.edu/HighPlains/HPA_Atlas/index.html) and based on data collected and interpreted from Kansas Surface Water Register (Kansas Department of Health and Environment, )
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Kings Creek, Konza Prairie, Kansas represents a stream where the upstream gage may read flow when the downstream gage does not, and vice versa. (a) Comparison of the number of zero‐flow days per year at an upstream gage (watershed N04D) and a downstream gage (USGS gage 06879650) demonstrates some years where the downstream gage has more zero‐flow days than the upstream gage, as indicated by the points below the dashed 1:1 line. (b) Conceptualization of the landscape with alternating limestone (more porous) and shale (less porous) subsurface stratigraphy that can route upstream springfed flow around the downstream gage at times. Data in (a) courtesy of the USGS and Konza Prairie Long Term Ecological Research station and (b) is reprinted with permission from Costigan, Daniels, and Dodds ()
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Examples of daily hydrographs displaying zero‐flow readings. (a) Kuparuk River, near Deadhorse, AK (USGS site: 15896000), (b) Berger Ditch near Oregon, OH (USGS site: 04194085), (c) Rio Puerco near Bernardo, NM (USGS site: 08353000, provisional data downloaded September 26, 2019), (d) Agua Fria River Near Mayer, AZ (USGS site: 09512500, provisional data downloaded Sep. 26, 2019), (e) Snake River near Milner Dam, ID (non‐USGS gage), and (f) Arkansas River at Garden City, KS (USGS site: 07139000). Subplot subtitles indicate the associated zero‐flow scenarios as illustrated in Figure . Data source: U.S. Geological Survey, 2019
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Common scenarios of zero‐flow readings at gages, as outlined in Section 2. Scenarios 2.1–2.3 (left panel) can produce a zero‐flow reading despite the presence of water; Scenarios 2.4a and b (right panel) produce zero‐flow readings, but have variable drivers and implications for local and network‐scale stream ecosystems and hydrology. Figure order does not imply prevalence on the landscape
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(a) An example of a zero‐flow gage reading in which isolated surface water pools are present at and around gage instrumentation (USGS site: 08353000), (b) USGS gages with daily flow observations, and (c) All USGS gages plus GRDC (excluding United States where USGS gages are shown) with daily flow observations. Gray circles represent gages with no recorded zero‐flow observations and red circles represent gages with at least one recorded zero‐flow observation (zero‐flow observation defined as 0 daily mean flow at stream gage). Photo credit: DryRivers Research Coordination Network work group, taken September 25, 2019
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