Watersheds may not recover from drought

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Science  14 May 2021:
Vol. 372, Issue 6543, pp. 745-749
DOI: 10.1126/science.abd5085

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Staying dry

Is precipitation all that a watershed needs to recover from drought? Conventional wisdom says yes, but this is not necessarily true. Peterson et al. studied streamflow and precipitation in 161 watersheds in southeastern Australia across the Millennium Drought, which stuck the region during the first decade of the 21st century (see the Perspective by Tauro). They found that runoff in approximately one-third of the watersheds had not returned to predrought levels even after 7 years despite the resumption of more normal precipitation. The authors suggest that these longterm changes are due to water loss from increased transpiration. Watersheds may thus have multiple states and a finite resilience to transient disturbances, and hydrological droughts can persist long after meteorological droughts.

Science, this issue p. 745; see also p. 680


The Millennium Drought (southeastern Australia) provided a natural experiment to challenge the assumption that watershed streamflow always recovers from drought. Seven years after the drought, the runoff (as a fraction of precipitation) had not recovered in 37% of watersheds, and the number of recovered watersheds was not increasing. When recovery did occur, it was not explained by watershed wetness. For those watersheds not recovered, ~80% showed no evidence of recovering soon, suggesting persistence within a low-runoff state. The post-drought precipitation not going to runoff was found to be likely going to increased evapotranspiration per unit of precipitation. These findings show that watersheds can have a finite resilience to disturbances and suggest that hydrological droughts can persist indefinitely after meteorological droughts.

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