Winter Flows in the Mackenzie Drainage System

  • Ming-Ko Woo
  • Robin Thorne
Keywords: low flow, groundwater, lake storage, river ice, regulated flow, reservoir, trend, Mackenzie River


Winter low flow of northern rivers refers to the diminished discharge between the time of rapid flow reduction in the freeze-up period and the arrival of spring freshet, when the flow makes a quick rise. For the Mackenzie River in Canada, the duration of the winter low-flow season so defined varies considerably within the river’s large basin (1.8 million km2); therefore, to give a common time frame that enables between-basin comparison we consider 1 November to 31 March as the winter flow season. Several hydroclimatic conditions influence winter flows to varying degrees. Lengthy periods of sub-freezing temper­atures inhibit rain events and prevent snowmelt, while the formation of river ice increases channel storage at the expense of discharge. Groundwater sustains baseflow, and the flow amount at most stations is related to autumnal discharge, which reflects groundwater storage status in the pre-winter season. Large reservoirs and lakes provide substantially higher winter flows than their neighboring non-lake areas. Winter flow increases downstream as more water is gathered from the expanded drainage network, but flow contribution varies: larger baseflow is delivered from uplands than from lowlands, and discharge from the Williston Lake reservoir, regulated for hydropower production, provides about half of the total winter flow of the Mackenzie. Monotonic linear trends in winter flow are detected statistically for some tributaries, but the effect of short-term flow variability and the confounding influence of managed flow should be evaluated when considering long-term tendencies and their causative factors.