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Environ Manage. 2004 Jul;34(1):91-8. Epub 2004 Apr 19.

Effects of changing forest and impervious land covers on discharge characteristics of watersheds.

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School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Fishery Sciences Building, Box 355020, Seattle, Washington 98195-5020, USA.


Effects of changing patterns of forest and impervious land covers on hydrologic regimes of watersheds were evaluated for urban and rural areas of the lower Cedar River drainage near Seattle, Washington. Land cover characterizations were used in a spatially explicit hydrology model to assess effects of land covers on watershed hydrology during presettlement conditions ("full forest cover"), 1991 and 1998. For the presettlement to 1991 period, urban watersheds showed decreases in forest covers (range 63% to 83%) and increases in impervious surfaces (range 43% to 71%). Rural watersheds showed similar patterns but smaller changes, with forest covers decreasing (range 28% to 34%) and impervious surfaces increasing (range 8% to 15%). For the 1991 and 1998 period, changes in forest covers for urban and rural watershed were <24%, with losses in some watersheds and regeneration in others. Impervious surfaces continued to increase, but increases were larger in rural (range 38% to 60%) than in urban watersheds (range 4% to 27%). Flood-frequency curves indicated that discharge rates (m sec(-1)) for all watersheds were higher in 1991 and 1998 than historical and suggested that chances for floods increase because of changing land covers. The largest increases in discharge rates were in urban watersheds, with rates for 2-year, 10-year, and 25-year recurrence intervals being more than two times greater than the rate during historical conditions. Changes in flow regimes were indicated by presettlement discharge levels of less frequent recurrence intervals (10-year and 25-year) occurring in posturbanization times (1991 and 1998) during more frequent intervals (2-year and 10-year). Normalized flows (m yr(-1)) of watersheds for 2-year, 10-year, and 25-year recurrence intervals indicate how flow regimes in 1991 and 1998 can change as functions of different areas of land covers. During 1991 and 1998, abrupt increases in flows occurred when forest covers were low (range 17% to 37%) and impervious surfaces were >46%. In contrast, the lowest flows occurred when forest covers were most extensive (range 59% to 81%) and impervious surfaces were <23%. We conclude that our use of spatial characterizations of impervious surfaces and forested covers in a spatially explicit hydrology model provides a robust approach for revealing how variations in different types and spatial distributions of land covers can affect flood regimes and flows of different watersheds.

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