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Baseflow (also called drought flow, groundwater recession flow, low flow, low-water flow, low-water discharge and sustained or fair-weather runoff) is the portion of the streamflow that is sustained between precipitation events, fed to streams by delayed pathways. It should not be confused with groundwater flow. Fair weather flow is also called base flow.[1]


Baseflow is important for sustaining human centers of population and ecosystems. This is especially true for watersheds that do not rely on snowmelt. Different ecological processes will occur at different parts of the hydrograph. During the baseflow ascending limb, there is frequently more stream area and habitat available for water-dependent species, spawning salmon for example. During the recession limb which in California is from May to October, there is increasingly less stream area, indigenous species are more adept at surviving in low flow conditions than introduced species.


Baseflow is derived from bedrock water storage near surface valley soils and riparian zones. Water percolates to groundwater and then flows to a body of water. Baseflow depletion curve is the declining of baseflow/groundwater and soil reserves.[2] The volume and rate of water moving as baseflow can be affected by macropores, micropores, and other fractured conditions in the soil and shallow geomorphic features. Infiltration to recharge subsurface storage increases baseflow. Evapotranspiration reduces baseflow because trees absorb water from the ground. In the fall baseflow can increase before it starts to rain because the trees drop their leaves and stop drinking as much water.[3] River incision can decrease the baseflow by lowering the water table and aquifer.[4]

Good baseflow is connected to surface water that is located in permeable, soluble, or highly fractured bedrock. Bad baseflow is in crystalline or massive bedrock with minor fracturing and doesn't store water. Losing reaches is when the water flow decreases as it travels downstream and is fracturing deeper than surface water or in karst geology because limestone and dolomite high storage. Gaining reaches is when flow increases as it travels downstream. Gaining reaches are common in humid mountainous regions where the water table is above the surface water and the water flows from high head to low head following Darcy's law.[4]


Methods for identifying baseflow sources and residence/transit time include using solutes and tracers. Solutes that originate in distinct areas of the watershed can be used to source baseflow-geochemical signatures. Tracers may be inserted into different parts of the watershed to identify flow paths and transit times.[5]

Methods for summarizing baseflow from an existing streamflow record include event based low flow statistics,[6] flow duration curve,[7] metrics that explain proportioning of baseflow to total flow,[8] and the baseflow recession curve which can be used on ungauged streams based on empirical relationship between watershed characteristics and baseflow at gauged sites.[9]

Certain parameters of baseflow, such as the mean residence time and the baseflow recession curve, can be useful in describing the mixing of waters (such as from precipitation and groundwater) and the level of groundwater contribution to streamflow in catchments.[10]

Baseflow separation is often used to determine what portion of a streamflow hydrograph occurs from baseflow, and what portion occurs from overland flow. Common methods include using isotope tracing and the software program HYSEP, among others.

Anthropogenic effects[edit]

Anthropogenic effects to baseflow include forestry, urbanization, and agriculture. Forest cover has high infiltration and recharge because of tree roots. Removal of forest cover can cause a short-term increase in mean flow and baseflow because there is less interception and evapotranspiration.[11] Urbanization includes a re-organization of surface and subsurface pathways so that water is flushed through catchments because of reduced hydraulic resistance, Manning's n, channels and impervious surfaces which decreases infiltration. In urban areas water is often imported from outside the watershed from deep wells and reservoirs. The pipes that transport the water often leak 20-25% to the subsurface which can actually increase baseflow. Agriculture can lower baseflow if water diverted from stream for irrigation, or can raise baseflow if water is used from a different watershed. Pastures can increase compaction and reduce organic matter with reduces infiltration and baseflow.[11]

Analysis software[edit]

BFI+ Software for baseflow separation from a hydrogram. It was developed for baseflow separation from daily or weekly time series of river discharges. The program includes a choice of 11 methods for separation. It includes methods such as local minimum, fixed interval or sliding interval methods; and also methods of recursive digital filters.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kendall and McDonnell (1998). "Isotope Tracers in Catchment Hydrology". Elsevier. Archived from the original on July 5, 2008. Retrieved July 10, 2009. {{cite journal}}: Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  2. ^ Ward, Andy and Trimble, Stanley (2003). Environmental Hydrology, Second Edition. CRC Press. ISBN 978-1-4200-5661-7.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  3. ^ R., Bierman, Paul (2013-12-27). Key concepts in geomorphology. Montgomery, David R., 1961-, University of Vermont., University of Washington. New York, NY. ISBN 9781429238601. OCLC 868029499.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link) CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ a b Mount, Jeffrey F. (1995). California rivers and streams : the conflict between fluvial process and land use. Berkeley: University of California Press. ISBN 9780520916937. OCLC 42330977.
  5. ^ Glynn, Pierre D.; Plummer, L. Niel (2005-03-01). "Geochemistry and the understanding of ground-water systems". Hydrogeology Journal. 13 (1): 263–287. Bibcode:2005HydJ...13..263G. doi:10.1007/s10040-004-0429-y. ISSN 1431-2174. S2CID 129716764.
  6. ^ O'Keeffe, Jay (2009). "Sustaining river ecosystems: balancing use and protection". Progress in Physical Geography: Earth and Environment. 33 (3): 339–357. doi:10.1177/0309133309342645. S2CID 131587514.
  7. ^ Stedinger, JR, Vogel, RM, and Foufoula-Georgiou, E (1993). Handbook of Hydrology. McGraw-Hill.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  8. ^ Bloomfield, J.P.; Allen, D.J.; Griffiths, K.J. (2009-06-30). "Examining geological controls on baseflow index (BFI) using regression analysis: An illustration from the Thames Basin, UK" (PDF). Journal of Hydrology. 373 (1–2): 164–176. Bibcode:2009JHyd..373..164B. doi:10.1016/j.jhydrol.2009.04.025. ISSN 0022-1694.
  9. ^ Posavec, Kristijan; Bacani, Andrea; Nakic, Zoran (2006-05-26). "A Visual Basic Spreadsheet Macro for Recession Curve Analysis". Ground Water. 44 (5): 060526082055001––. doi:10.1111/j.1745-6584.2006.00226.x. ISSN 0017-467X. PMID 16961500. S2CID 12485813.
  10. ^ Vitvar; et al. (2002). "Estimation of baseflow residence times in watersheds from the runoff hydrograph recession: method and application in the Neversink watershed, Catskill Mountains, New York" (PDF). Hydrol. Processes. 16 (9): 1871–1877. Bibcode:2002HyPr...16.1871V. doi:10.1002/hyp.5027. S2CID 28833693. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-03. Retrieved 2009-07-10.
  11. ^ a b Price, Katie (2011). "Effects of watershed topography, soils, land use, and climate on baseflow hydrology in humid regions: A review". Progress in Physical Geography. 35 (4): 465–492. doi:10.1177/0309133311402714. S2CID 7544941.
  12. ^ "HydroOffice | Tool | BFI+". Retrieved 2023-05-19.