Summer Low Flow Events in the Mackenzie River System

  • Ming-ko Woo
  • Robin Thorne
Keywords: low flow, summer drought, lake storage, regulated flow, duration, deficit, minimum flow, probability distribution, Mackenzie River


Most northern rivers experience recurrent low flow conditions in the summer (June to September), and rivers of the Mackenzie Basin are no exception. Low flow affects water supply, poses problems for river traffic, and can adversely affect aquatic ecology. Factors that affect summer low flow, which encompasses flows below specified discharge thresholds of concern, include evapotranspiration that leads to water loss from flow-contributing areas, antecedent high flow in which peak discharge is followed by gradual recession to low flow, rainfall and local glacier melt events that interrupt low discharge, replenishments of flow from upstream drainage networks, and arbitrary termination of summer low flow at the end of September. The storage mechanism of large lakes and the regulation effect of reservoirs can produce low flow regimes that differ from those exhibited by rivers without such storage functions. For most rivers, low flow events of longer duration cause larger deficits, and events with large deficits are accompanied by lower minimum discharge. The deficit-to-demand ratio measures the extent to which river flow fails to satisfy water needs. Applying this index to rivers of the Mackenzie drainage shows the hazard of streamflow drought in the basin. Low flow attributes can be summarized by their probability distributions: Gumbel distribution for minimum discharge of events and generalized exponential distribution for event duration. By fitting theoretical distributions to recorded events, one can estimate the probability of occurrence of low flow events that did not occur in the historical past.