Synthesis of historical reservoir operations from 1980 to 2020 for the evaluation of reservoir representation in large-scale hydrologic models

Jennie C. Steyaert, Laura E. Condon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


All the major river systems in the contiguous United States (CONUS) (and many in the world) are impacted by dams, yet reservoir operations remain difficult to quantify and model due to a lack of data. Reservoir operation data are often inaccessible or distributed across many local operating agencies, making the acquisition and processing of data records quite time-consuming. As a result, large-scale models often rely on simple parameterizations for assumed reservoir operations and have a very limited ability to evaluate how well these approaches match actual historical operations. Here, we use the first national dataset of historical reservoir operations in the CONUS domain, ResOpsUS, to analyze reservoir storage trends and operations in more than 600 major reservoirs across the US. Our results show clear regional differences in reservoir operations. In the eastern US, which is dominated by flood control storage, we see storage peaks in the winter months with sharper decreases in the operational range (i.e., the difference between monthly maximum and minimum storage) in the summer. In the more arid western US where storage is predominantly for irrigation, we find that storage peaks during the spring and summer with increases in the operational range during the summer months. The Lower Colorado region is an outlier because its seasonal storage dynamics more closely mirrored those of flood control basins, yet the region is classified as arid, and most reservoirs have irrigation uses. Consistent with previous studies, we show that average annual reservoir storage has decreased over the past 40 years, although our analyses show a much smaller decrease than previous work. The reservoir operation characterizations presented here can be used directly for development or evaluation of reservoir operations and their derived parameters in large-scale models. We also evaluate how well historical operations match common assumptions that are often applied in large-scale reservoir parameterizations. For example, we find that 100 dams have maximum storage values greater than the reported reservoir capacity from the Global Reservoirs and Dams database (GRanD). Finally, we show that operational ranges have been increasing over time in more arid regions and decreasing in more humid regions, pointing to the need for operating policies which are not solely based on static values.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1071-1088
Number of pages18
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number4
StatePublished - Mar 1 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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