Multi-century perspectives on current and future streamflow in the Missouri River Basin

Science Center Objects

The Missouri River Basin (MRB) is the only major river headwaters in the western U.S. for which hydrologic reconstructions from tree rings have not been generated in any systematic way. This knowledge gap is critical given that the region is facing an array of water resource issues that are challenged by hydrologic variability – experiencing both severe floods and droughts in the recent past. Providing a longer context for understanding past variability of flow and the climatic controls on it, particularly at decadal and longer time scales, is critical for anticipating and managing future water supplies. Historical discharge records are too short for such assessments; hence, the value of tree-ring based hydrologic reconstructions that span the past several centuries to millennium.

Missouri River Basin Map.

Here we present early progress in a collaborative research project that seeks to address this data and knowledge gap by developing Hierarchical Bayesian Models (HBM) for streamflow reconstruction on the MRB drainage network using existing, new, and updated tree-ring collections. The HBMs will be constructed to directly consider the spatial dependence structure of flows in the drainage network leading to improved regional assessments of potential non-stationarity in past, present, and projected future changes in streamflow. A variety of hydrologic, climatic, and land-use modeling experiments will also provide information on the likely drivers of historic and future drought and pluvial events. Flow reconstructions developed using the HBM methods will be compared to results obtained from a suite of more traditional to novel reconstruction methods that are less complex, but offer other potential advantages such as enhanced retention of low-frequency climate information. Reconstruction of annual (water year) total flows and seasonal low flows will be targeted due to their importance for navigation, reservoir operation, and environmental regulation and ecology.

Stakeholder Engagement

The Missouri River system is the life-blood of the American Midwest. Our research team will collaborate closely with the US Army Corps of Engineers Institute of Water Resources and their Upper Missouri Basin Offices to develop and test paleoclimatic scenarios that can be used for different aspects of the Corps’ operations on the river system, ultimately leading to better multi-stakeholder discussions on how best to manage climate induced risk in the region. This direct engagement will enhance the application of the research products, as well as provide guidance for their design. The analyses of the spatio-temporal structure of low-frequency variability in the MRB will be invaluable for evaluating reservoir and river system operation policies and for drought preparation. The low-flow simulations across multiple years and across the river network will be valuable for ecological assessments and river restoration programs as they relate to the EPA regulatory processes. To engage Montana water users, we will convene a workshop for local, state, tribal, and national management agency personnel, modeled after a series of workshops that several of the PIs have held for resource managers in other western states, with the goal to build capacity to incorporate scientific information into planning and management.

Research Questions and Objectives

  • Develop a general Hierarchical Bayesian Model for streamflow reconstruction on a river network using tree-ring chronologies and apply it to the MRB annual and summer flow series.
  • Extend this model and its applications to include a strategy for the space-time stochastic simulation of streamflow on the network considering explicit modeling of interannual and longer quasi-oscillatory flow regimes.
  • Use the reconstructions to analyze drought risk over the MRB station network focusing on the potential spatial structure and regime-like persistence of drought. Identify canonical drought signatures and their correspondence to large-scale atmospheric circulation features through comparisons with independent paleo-reconstructions across the American West. Assess the post-1900 record for trends and changes given the longer context.
  • Introduce the reconstruction and simulation tools into the US Army Corps of Engineers’ planning and operation evaluation process, and develop an understanding of potential current and future applications for a range of stakeholders, including Montana water users.


Project Resources

Posters and Presentations

Stakeholder Tools and Data


Publication Summaries

Project Personnel (Principle Investigators and Key Collaborators)

Jay Alder – U.S. Geological Survey, Corvallis, OR
Edward Cook – Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, NY
Naresh Devineni – The City College of New York (CUNY), NY
Jonathan Friedman – U.S. Geological Survey, Fort Collins, CO
Steven Hostetler – U.S. Geological Survey, Corvallis, OR
Upmanu Lall – Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, NY
Caroline Leland – Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Columbia University, NY
Justin Martin – Montana State University, Bozeman, MT
Gregory McCabe – U.S. Geological Survey, Denver, CO
Parker Norton – U.S. Geological Survey, Rapid City, SD
Gregory Pederson – U.S. Geological Survey, Bozeman MT
Scott St. George – University of Minnesota, Minneapolis MN
Jeannine St. Jacques – Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, Regina, SK
Dave Sauchyn – Prairie Adaptation Research Collaborative, Regina, SK
John Stamm – U.S. Geological Survey, Rapid City, SD
Erika Wise – University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC
Connie Woodhouse – University of Arizona, Tucson AZ

Water Management Partners

Chuck Dalby - Hydrologist, Montana Department of Natural Resources & Yellowstone River Compact Commission
Sue Lowrey - Interstate Streams Division, Wyoming State Engineer's Office & Yellowstone River Compact Commission
Beth Ross - Water Planning Coordinator, Interstate Streams Division Wyoming State Engineer's Office
Mitchell Weier - Water Resource Engineer | North Dakota State Water Commission
Jeff Vonk - Director, Missouri River Association of States and Tribes (MoRAST) |
Laura Ackerman - Investigations Section, ND State Water Commission
Levi Brekke - Chief, Research and Development, Bureau of Reclamation
Subhrendu Gangopadhyay - Manager, Water Resources Planning and Operations Support Group, Bureau of Reclamation
Marketa Elsner - Hydrologic Engineer, Bureau of Reclamation Technical Service Center
Larry Dolan - Hydrologist, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation

This project was funded by the National Science Foundation [Paleo Perspectives on Climate Change (P2C2) Program] and the U.S. Geological Survey’s Water Resources and National Research Programs.