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Precipitation-runoff processes in the Merced River Basin, Central California, with prospects for streamflow predictability, water years 1952–2013

September 1, 2021

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the California Department of Water Resources (DWR), has constructed a new spatially detailed Precipitation-Runoff Modeling System (PRMS) model for the Merced River Basin, California, which is a tributary of the San Joaquin River in California. Operated through an Object User Interface (OUI) with Ensemble Streamflow Prediction (ESP) and daily climate distribution preprocessing functionality, the model is calibrated primarily to simulate (and eventually, forecast) year-to-year variations of inflows to Lake McClure during the critical April–July snowmelt season. The model is intended to become part of a suite of methods used by DWR for estimating daily streamflow from the Merced River Basin, especially during the snowmelt season. This study describes the results of the application of an analysis tool that simulates responses to climate and land-use variations at a higher spatial resolution than previously available to DWR.

A geographic information system was used to delineate the model domain, that is, areas draining to a single outlet at U.S. Geological Survey streamflow-gaging station 11270900, Merced River below Merced Falls Dam, near Snell, CA (also known as California Data Exchange Center station MRC), and subdrainage areas, including four draining to internal gages used as calibration targets. Using this delineation, three contiguous subbasins were recognized and, along with the model domain and nested calibration targets, are the simulation units evaluated in this report.

An auto-calibration tool, LUCA (Let Us CAlibrate), was used for each calibration node, from headwaters to basin outlet, and then parameters were manually adjusted to complete the calibration. The main objective was to match April–July snowmelt seasonal discharge values of simulated streamflow to observed (measured or reconstructed) discharge values. Calibration or validation periods used site-specific streamflows—mostly from October 1, 1988, through September 30, 2013—but differed according to the period-of-record available for the measurements collected at internal gages or reconstructed flows for the single outlet.

The accuracy of the Merced PRMS streamflow simulations varied seasonally, as compared to observed values. Based on statistical results, the Merced PRMS model satisfactorily simulated snowmelt seasonal streamflows. April–July calibrations for all areas had small negative bias (not greater than 7 percent) and low relative error (less than 8 percent). Less satisfactory performance for other seasons was attributed to several factors: (1) high uncertainty in low or zero flows in summer and fall, (2) lack of accounting for basin withdrawals and anthropogenic water use, (3) unavailability and (or) inaccuracy of observed (measured) meteorological input data, and (4) uncertainty in reconstructed streamflow data.

With some additional refinement, the Merced PRMS model may be used for forecasting seasonal and longer-term streamflow variations; evaluating forecasted and past climate and land cover changes; providing water-resource managers with a consistent and documented method for estimating streamflow at ungaged sites within the basin; and aiding environmental studies, hydraulic design, water management, and water-quality projects in the Merced River Basin.

Publication Year 2021
Title Precipitation-runoff processes in the Merced River Basin, Central California, with prospects for streamflow predictability, water years 1952–2013
DOI 10.3133/sir20205150
Authors Kathryn M. Koczot, John C. Risley, JoAnn M. Gronberg, John M. Donovan, Kelly R. McPherson
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5150
Index ID sir20205150
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center