Stream hydrology strongly affects the structure of aquatic communities. Changes to air temperature and precipitation driven by increased greenhouse gas concentrations are shifting timing and volume of streamflows potentially affecting these communities. The variable infiltration capacity (VIC) macroscale hydrologic model has been employed at regional scales to describe and forecast hydrologic changes but has been calibrated and applied mainly to large rivers. An important question is how well VIC runoff simulations serve to answer questions about hydrologic changes in smaller streams, which are important habitat for many fish species. To answer this question, we aggregated gridded VIC outputs within the drainage basins of 55 streamflow gages in the Pacific Northwest United States and compared modeled hydrographs and summary metrics to observations. For most streams, several ecologically relevant aspects of the hydrologic regime were accurately modeled, including center of flow timing, mean annual and summer flows and frequency of winter floods. Frequencies of high and low flows in the summer were not well predicted, however. Predictions were worse for sites with strong groundwater influence, and some sites showed errors that may result from limitations in the forcing climate data. Higher resolution (1/16th degree) modeling provided small improvements over lower resolution (1/8th degree). Despite some limitations, the VIC model appears capable of representing several ecologically relevant hydrologic characteristics in streams, making it a useful tool for understanding the effects of hydrology in delimiting species distributions and predicting the potential effects of climate shifts on aquatic organisms.
Related website: Western US Stream Flow Metric Dataset