Reconstructing Early Hydrologic Change in the California Delta and its Watersheds

Lissa J. MacVean, Sally Thompson, Paul Hutton, Murugesu Sivapalan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Regulatory goals for the California Delta attempt to restore natural ecosystems through various water management efforts. Defining management criteria for restoration is challenging, given that the earliest data describing the hydrology of the region follow many decades of change associated with agricultural development, channel modification, and flood control. This study explores the hydrology of the 1850–1920 period by synthesizing new reconstructed precipitation, basin inflows, land use change, and levee construction time series, in a semidistributed hydrologic model. The model demonstrated that it is impossible to simultaneously reproduce estimated historical flood extents, frequencies, and durations given contemporary topography. Bounding cases were constructed to span potential water budget partitioning and suggest that the state of this region by the 1920s was hydrologically similar to that of the natural regime (i.e., flow experienced was depressed due to drought, but within the bounds of variability of the natural Delta system), partly due to the flow augmentation provided by flood control infrastructure and enhanced channel conveyance. The model suggests that levee construction, rather than land use change, had the greatest impact on Delta hydrology. This and other reconstructions, however, suggest that decreases in annual Delta outflows accelerated after 1920. Future efforts to reconstruct Delta hydrology should focus on improving information about the historical topography and channel geometry of the Central Valley river network, with a view to refining understanding of the natural and historical flood regime.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)7767-7790
Number of pages24
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2018


  • California Delta
  • anthropogenic change
  • modeling
  • nonstationary
  • reconstruction
  • sociohydrology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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