Evaluating Flow Metric-Based Stream Classification Systems to Support the Determination of Ecological Flows in North Carolina
Hydroecological classification systems are typically based on an assemblage of streamflow metrics and seek to divide streams into ecologically relevant classes. Assignment of streams to classes is suggested as an initial step in the process of establishing ecological flow standards. We used two distinct hydroecological river classification systems available within North Carolina to evaluate the ability of a hydrologic model to assign the same classes as those determined by observed streamflows and to assess the transferability of such systems to ungaged streams. Class assignments were examined by rate of overall matches, rate of class matches, spatial variability in matches, and time period used in class assignment. The findings of this study indicate assignments of stream class: (1) are inconsistent among different classification systems; (2) differ between observed and modeled data; and (3) are sensitive to the period of record within observed data. One clear source of inconsistency/sensitivity in class assignments lies with the use of threshold values for metrics that distinguish stream classes, such that even small changes in metric values can result in different class assignments. Because these two hydroecological classification systems are representative of other classification systems that rely on quantitative decision thresholds, it can be surmised that the use of such systems based on stream flow metrics is not a reliable approach for guiding ecological flow determinations.