Published In

Oregon Climate Assessment Report

Document Type

Technical Report

Publication Date



Water-supply -- Effect of climatic changes on, Streamflow -- Oregon -- Measurement, Water-supply -- Oregon -- Mathematical models


Climate change will affect various sectors of water resources in Oregon in the 21st century. The observed trends in streamflow show significant declines in September flow and, although not significant, increases in March flow in many transient rain-snow basins. These streamflow trends are associated with rising temperature and coincident declines in snowpack in spring in the latter half of the 20th century. While there are no distinct trends in high precipitation events, such events are associated with climate variability such as ENSO and PDO. Effects of ENSO and PDO are more pronounced at the beginning and end of the wet season in the Willamette River basin. The amount and seasonality of water supply is projected to shift as the distribution of precipitation changes and temperatures rise. Higher summer air temperatures accompanied by reduced precipitation are projected to increase evapotranspiration and decrease stream flow in summer. Although there are no distinct spatial patterns of changes in precipitation and temperature across the State in the 21st century (uniform increase in temperature across the region), significant regional variations do exist. The magnitude of change depends on the importance of snow in the current water budget, so projected changes are greater for mountainous regions than for low-elevation areas. Transient rain-snow basins, such as those in the Western Cascade basins, are projected to be more sensitive to these changes in precipitation and temperature. The high Cascade basins that are primarily fed by deep groundwater systems could sustain low flow during summer months. Basins in the east of the Cascades are projected to have low summer flow in a distant future as groundwater recharge declines over time. April 1 snow water equivalent (SWE) will decline and the center timing of runoff will become earlier in transient rain-snow basins as snowpack is projected to decline consistently in the 21st century. These model projections should be viewed with caution for several reasons when considering climate change impacts on water supply in Oregon. First, this chapter shows that few consistent trends in runoff are apparent in streamflow records from Oregon; instead, the direction and magnitude of change in streamflow varies by season, by basin size, and among ecoregions in Oregon. Second, observed streamflow trends (e.g., declining flows in summer, or in September) may be explained by factors that may not be directly related to global climate change. For example, recent low-flow years are attributable to low precipitation years (especially 2001 and 2005) and perhaps to interannual variations in snowpack associated with cyclical variation in ocean temperatures, while long-term decreases in summer flows are attributable to the combination of summer precipitation decline and increasing water withdrawals for consumptive use. Third, model projections do not account for possible resilience and adaptations in natural ecosystems that may alter water use and lead to smaller than expected changes in streamflow. More work is needed on vegetation responses to climate variability, the interactions between soil water and vegetation, and the relationship between streamflow and precipitation (runoff ratios) in large basins.


Chapter 3 in Oregon Climate Assessment Report. Published in Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. Oregon State University.

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