Stationarity is Dead: Whither Water Management?

Published in the journal 'Science,' this article argues that the current concept of stationarity - the idea that natural systems fluctuate within an unchanging envelope of variability - is made obsolete in water management practices by anthropogenic climate change. The article recommends that the analytic strategies used for planning future investments be updated.

The stationarity assumption has been compromised by the substantial anthropogenic change of Earth’s climate, which has altered the means and extremes of precipitation, evapotranspiration, and river discharge rates. Stationarity is further invalidated by human disturbances including the construction of water infrastructure and drainage works, channel modifications, and land-cover and land-use change.

The article argues that stationarity cannot be restored, and water managers must therefore identify nonstationary probabilistic models to optimize water systems. The authors describe how the Harvard Water Program's rational planning framework can be adapted to a changing climate, potentially filling this nonstationary role.

The authors also note that water managers who are developing plans for their local climate adaptation plans will not be best served by models whose horizontal grids have divisions measured in hundreds of kilometers. To be most useful to water managers, climate models must include more explicit representations of surface- and ground-water processes, water infrastructure, and water users, including the agricultural and energy sectors.


Publication Date: February 1, 2008

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • P. C. D. Milly
  • Julio Betancourt
  • Malin Falkenmark
  • Robert M. Hirsch
  • Zbigniew W. Kundzewicz
  • Dennis P. Lettenmaier
  • Ronald J. Stouffer


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