Influence of basin characteristics on the effectiveness and downstream reach of interbasin water transfers: displacing a problem
Interbasin water transfers are globally important water management strategies, yet little is known about their role in the hydrologic cycle at regional and continental scales. Specifically, there is a dearth of centralized information on transfer locations and characteristics, and few analyses place transfers into a relevant hydrological context. We assessed hydrological characteristics of interbasin transfers (IBTs) in the conterminous US using a nationwide inventory of transfers together with historical climate data and hydrological modeling. Supplying and receiving drainage basins share similar hydroclimatological conditions, suggesting that climatological drivers of water shortages in receiving basins likely have similar effects on supplying basins. This result calls into question the effectiveness of transfers as a strategy to mitigate climate-driven water shortages, as the water shortage may be displaced but not resolved. We also identified hydrologically advantageous and disadvantageous IBTs by comparing the water balances of supplying and receiving basins. Transfer magnitudes did not vary between the two categories, confirming that factors driving individual IBTs, such as patterns of human water demand or engineering constraints, also influence the continental-scale distribution of transfers. Some IBTs impact streamflow for hundreds of kilometers downstream. Transfer magnitude, hydroclimate and organization of downstream river networks mediate downstream impacts, and these impacts have the potential to expand downstream nonlinearly during years of drought. This work sheds new light on IBTs and emphasizes the need for updated inventories and analyses that place IBTs in an appropriate hydrological context.