Science Module: Environmental Flows and Water Security

Today’s rivers experience a wide variety of anthropogenic stressors. Roads, rooftops and development in our urbanized areas cause increased runoff and reduced recharge for groundwater, while numerous dams, reservoirs,  and water withdrawals, alter our rivers natural flow regimes. A changing climate has added weather extremes  such as increased flooding and droughts, bringing uncertainty to the field of water resources management.  Changes in river flows impact the chemical, physical and biological aspects of our rivers, and hydrologic alteration has been recognized as a cause for failing to meet designated uses for aquatic life under the Clean Water Act.

To better understand  the impacts of these threats, and seek to protect and restore natural flow regimes that provide benefits for people and wildlife, several key science and management approaches have been developed in recent years.

Purpose of This Science Module

This science module will introduce you to the concepts of water budgets, environmental flows, and water security and provide instruction on using tools that are now available online. We’ve assembled already available resources from our partners in the field of ample water, and produced new material to help weave together these concepts and introduce new resources.

The segments may be watched individually but are intended to be watched in sequence so they may build upon each other for greatest understanding. You may also access the videos on our Youtube channel here.

Begin Science Module

Navigate through the 5-part module using the tabs below.

Fundamental Concepts of Environmental Flows

Video 1: A segment from the documentary movie Sense and Sustainability

This short video helps set the tone for examining human impact on river ecosystems. Brian Richter (Sustainable Waters and past River Network Board Member) gets you thinking about rivers and their natural flows and the unique ecological services and niches they provide.

Fundamental Concepts of Environmental Flows

Video 2: Understanding environmental flows

Brian Richter (The Nature Conservancy and River Network Board Member) introduces the science of environmental flows, how ecological services are accounted for and how alteration to hydrologic cycles can be measured and tied to the health of aquatic life.

Tools for Investigating Environmental Flows

Video 3: Environmental flow tools from the National Water Census Data Resources Portal

Dave Blodgett (Project Manager for the USGS Water Census Data Resources Portal) walks us through the resources available for investigating environmental flows in your watershed, available through the portal. From accessing real-time and historic flow data,  to calculating flow statistics and indicators of hydrologic alteration, or downloading modeled baseline flow hydrologies for un-gaged watersheds., this new tool will surely prove useful for anyone looking to explore flow conditions in their watershed.

Fundamental Concepts of Water Budgets

Video 4: Introduction to water budgets for water security

Water budgets are a strict accounting of water in, though, and out of a closed system. From precipitation rates to evapotranspiration and consumptive use, the water moving through your watershed can be accounted for and help with planning to meet future water needs. Brian Richter (The Nature Conservancy, Board Member of River Network) introduces the concept of water budgets, explains how they are calculated, and how the information can be used to enhance water security and instream flows.

Tools and Data for Constructing Water Budgets

Video 5: Water budget data tools from the National Water Census Data Resources Portal

Dave Blodgett (Project Manager for the USGS Water Census Data Resources Portal) shows us how to access flow, water-use, precipitation, and evapotranspiration data to contribute to a water budget for your watershed.

Data to Action

Data is a powerful tool in helping us to understand the state of our waterways and communities, and – if put to action – it can also amplify our findings to create change. What is “Data to Action” exactly? River Network interprets it as: using data or other community generated information, to take action at the intersection of science and policy to advocate for change at the federal, state, and local levels to better protect rivers, streams, and communities. No matter how it’s defined, the importance is in the action. Whether it’s policy, regulations, community engagement, or education, data can be used in many ways to effect change. Community science, community led research, and advocacy can join forces to highlight gaps, raise issues, and engage local residents in finding creative avenues toward solutions. Learn more.

Additional Resources for Pursuing Environmental Flows or Water Security Projects

Resource Materials