Assessment of hydrologic vulnerability to urbanization and climate change in a rapidly changing watershed in the Southeast U.S

Sci Total Environ. 2018 Dec 15;645:806-816. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2018.06.287. Epub 2018 Jul 24.


This study assessed the combined effects of increased urbanization and climate change on streamflow in the Yadkin-Pee Dee watershed (North Carolina, USA) and focused on the conversion from forest to urban land use, the primary land use transition occurring in the watershed. We used the Soil and Water Assessment Tool to simulate future (2050-2070) streamflow and baseflow for four combined climate and land use scenarios across the Yadkin-Pee Dee River watershed and three subwatersheds. The combined scenarios pair land use change and climate change scenarios together. Compared to the baseline, projected streamflow increased in three out of four combined scenarios and decreased in one combined scenario. Baseflow decreased in all combined scenarios, but decreases were largest in subwatersheds that lost the most forest. The effects of land use change and climate change were additive, amplifying the increases in runoff and decreases in baseflow. Streamflow was influenced more strongly by climate change than land use change. However, for baseflow the reverse was true; land use change tended to drive baseflow more than climate change. Land use change was also a stronger driver than climate in the most urban subwatershed. In the most extreme land use and climate projection the volume of the 1-day, 100 year flood nearly doubled at the watershed outlet. Our results underscore the importance of forests as hydrologic regulators buffering streamflow and baseflow from hydrologic extremes. Additionally, our results suggest that land managers and policy makers need to consider the implications of forest loss on streamflow and baseflow when planning for future urbanization and climate change adaptation options.

Keywords: Forest management, land use change; Forested watersheds; Land use models; Soil water assessment tool (SWAT); Streamflow.