Southern California Coastal Water Research Project Authority (SCCWRP)

Managing runoff to protect natural streams: the latest developments on investigation and management of hydromodification in California

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Stream channel downcutting, widening, and erosion due to increased surface runoff present the most profound and difficult to manage problems resulting from conversion of natural land surfaces to developed areas. Land use changes that reduce the capacity for infiltration and evapotranspiration of rainfall may result in an increase in the magnitude and frequency of erosive flows and changes in the proportion and timing of sediment delivery downstream. These effects, termed hydromodification, can adversely impact the physical structure, biologic condition, and water quality of streams.

This document summarizes the presentations and discussions from a workshop convened to provide an overview of key technical and managerial issues associated with hydromodification, with specific focus on California’s climatic setting. The goal of this workshop was to identify key conclusions regarding the mechanisms and causes of hydromodfication and to provide managers and decision makers with a list of recommended priorities for future work in terms of both technical and managerial products.

Recent studies indicate that California’s intermittent and ephemeral streams are more susceptible to the effects of hydromodification than streams from other parts of the United States (US). Physical degradation of stream channels in the central and eastern US can initially be detected when watershed impervious cover approaches 10%, although biological effects (which may be more difficult to detect) may occur at lower levels. In contrast, initial response of streams in the semi-arid portions of California appears to occur between 3% and 5% impervious cover.

Managing the effects of hydromodification requires attention to changes in runoff volume, magnitude of flows, frequency of erosive events, duration of flows, timing of high flows, magnitude and duration of base flows, and patterns of flow variability. Slope, composition of bed and bank materials, underlying geology, watershed position, and connections between streams and adjacent floodplains are also key considerations in the management of hydromodification effects.

A contemporary toolbox for assessing the effects of hydromodification consists of three technical approaches: continuous simulation modeling, physical process modeling using geomorphic metrics, and risk-based modeling. Independently and in a range of combinations, these approaches are instrumental to understanding and predicting channel responses. In conjunction with these approaches, the following research areas are recommended for enhanced understanding and assessment of hydromodification:

  • Establishment of appropriate reference conditions for various stream types
  • Establishment of linkage between geomorphic changes and biologic effects
  • Development and calibration of linked models that provide long-term simulation of hydrologic, and resultant physical changes in channel morphology

Furthermore, ongoing monitoring programs should be established for reference streams, streams subject to effects of hydromodification, and streams where various hydromodification management strategies have been employed.

Hydromodification is best addressed with a suite of strategies including site design, onsite controls, regional controls, in-stream controls, and restoration of degraded stream systems. To improve the effectiveness of hydromodification management, it is important to identify the most appropriate set of strategies based on the type of channel, setting, stage of channel adjustment, and amount of existing and expected impervious cover in drainage catchments. Management of hydromodification could be improved by integrating it into a multi-objective strategy that addresses hydrology, water quality, flood control, and stream ecology. In addition, streams should be surveyed and classified in order to identify areas with the greatest risk of impact from hydromodification. Output from dynamic modeling can be used to develop easy to use management guides, and standard monitoring protocols and performance criteria need to be developed. These management tools should be geared toward application by land-use planners and regulators at the municipal and state levels. Finally, a hydromodification workgroup should be formed to facilitate communication and exchange of ideas and information on technical and management strategies relevant to hydromodification.

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