How sensitive are catchment runoff estimates to on-farm storages under current and future climates?

Document Type


Publication Date


Journal Title

Journal of Hydrology




Climate change, On-farm storages, Hydrological change


Climate | Hydrology | Water Resource Management


Storage of water in farm dams is important to support irrigation, stock requirements and domestic uses when reticulated water is unavailable. Farm dams that fill by intercepting landscape runoff change the total volume and seasonality of catchment streamflow, potentially impacting water policy outcomes. While numerous studies have quantified how climate change and farm dams independently change streamflow characteristics, few studies have investigated their interactions. This study investigates the interactions between farm dams and climate change in the Murray-Darling Basin of southern and eastern Australia. We use hydrological modelling that explicitly represent farm dams and remotely sensed data describing historical farm dam development to assess the impacts of farm dams for 112 catchments on catchment runoff under current and future climates. Our analysis compares current and future runoff estimates to those derived without explicitly incorporating farm dam impacts to better understand the importance of farm dams in water resources assessments.

We find that modelling farm dams in these catchments improves the performance of the hydrological model relative to a traditional rainfall-runoff model ignoring the effects of farm dams. The current level of farm dam development in the Murray-Darling Basin is estimated to reduce annual catchment runoff by 13% (in the range of 8%–19%) under the historical climate across the 112 catchments investigated here. We find that explicitly modelling farm dams increases the sensitivity of simulated streamflow to climate by approximately 10%. This is primarily because farm dams introduce additional catchment storage and water extractions that do not directly follow processes represented in traditional rainfall-runoff models.

Our analysis offers important information for water policymakers in Australia and globally. Firstly, explicit modelling of farm dams is critical to understanding the future availability of water resources. Secondly, explicit modelling of farm dams allows their impacts on catchment runoff to be explored under current and future climates, and for policies to manage the impacts of dams to be investigated.