USask researcher Dr. Martyn Clark (PhD). (Photo: Submitted)

USask research aims to improve water management with better streamflow forecasts

A team led by University of Saskatchewan (USask) researcher Dr. Martyn Clark (PhD) has been awarded $180,000 over three years by Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) to improve seasonal streamflows forecasts for river basins across the country.

Given the huge challenges climate change is posing, with unprecedented floods devastating communities across Canada and prolonged droughts contributing to increased wildfire damage and economic losses in agriculture and other economic sectors, reliable forecasts are increasingly important. 

“This research helps us manage our precious freshwater resources,” said Clark, professor in the Department of Geography and Planning in USask’s College of Arts and Science. “Our streamflow forecasts will help in guiding water use decisions for irrigation and water supplies, optimizing hydropower production, and anticipating flood events.” 

Clark, along with his post-doctoral fellow Dr. Louise Arnal (PhD), and research colleague Dr. Alain Pietroniro (PhD) of the University of Calgary, aims to improve forecasting streamflows several months in advance by focusing on two main sources.  

The first is the knowledge researchers have about the amount of moisture stored in a river basin—in the form of snowpack—at the start of the spring forecast period. 

The team will analyze and interpret available data to build statistical models that predict the relationships between snowpack and streamflow. They also use complex physics-based approaches to hydrological simulation to estimate snowmelt and runoff from spring into the summer.  

The second focus is on predicting the weather and climate over the seasonal forecast period, with the accuracy of the streamflow estimate dependent on how well they do in prognosticating the weather for lead times ranging from a few seconds to many weeks. 

“Often, what we are finding is that most of our predictability comes from snow,” said Clark. 

With highly sophisticated mathematical modelling and data collection methods available to them through a synergistic relationship with the USask-led pan-Canadian Global Water Futures (GWF) program, the team can take measures to diminish the unpredictability inherent to streamflow forecasts. 

“A lot of our work is possible because of the computational infrastructure that was built as part of GWF, but this work is funded separately,” he said. 

Clark notes that USask water researchers have been working with ECCC for years to develop capabilities in stream forecasting, and this collaborative research is gaining attention worldwide.  

“Our research is leading to several new projects with the United States, the European Union and other international partners.” 

Among those new projects arising out of research done in relation with ECCC is the newly established Cooperative Institute for Research to Operations in Hydrology (CIROH), headquartered at the University of Alabama with an aim of revolutionizing flood prediction in North America.  

Pietroniro, Clark, and his USask departmental colleague, Distinguished Professor Dr. John Pomeroy (PhD), are the Canadian contingent on CIROH, which is bringing together experts from the U.S. and Canada to develop next-generation water prediction capabilities. 

Clark said his team’s streamflow project, funded through the ECCC award and $46,000 of in-kind support from USask, will be synergistic with CIROH because both countries have similar challenges with modelling streamflows, which opens up the scope for greater collaboration.