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U.S. Geological Survey
Scientific Investigations Report 2005–5190
Version 2.0

Timing and Duration of Flow in Ephemeral Streams of the Sierra Vista Subwatershed of the Upper San Pedro Basin, Cochise County, Southeastern Arizona

By Bruce Gungle

2006, revised 2007

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management

two photos of the same stream.  One shows very little water and the other shows quite a bit

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Frequency, timing, and duration of streamflow were monitored in 20 ephemeral-stream channels across the Sierra Vista Subwatershed of the Upper San Pedro Basin, southeastern Arizona, during an 18-month period. One channel (Walnut Gulch) had Agricultural Research Service streamflow-gaging stations in place. The sediments of the remaining 19 ephemeral-stream channels were instrumented with multiple temperature loggers along the channel lengths. A thermograph-interpretation technique was developed in order to determine frequency, timing, and duration of streamflow in these channels. Streamflow onset was characterized by exceedance of a critical minimum drop in temperature within the channel sediments during any 15-minute interval, whereas streamflow cessation was identified by the local temperature minimum that immediately followed the critical temperature drop. All data for the 18-month period from December 1, 2000, to May 31, 2002, were analyzed in terms of monsoon (June 1 to September 19) and nonmonsoon (September 20 to May 31) periods. Nonmonsoon precipitation during the 2000–2002 study period (excludes October and November 2000) was 82 percent and 39 percent of the 30-year average, respectively, whereas monsoon precipitation during 2001 was 99 percent of the 30-year average. Ephemeral streamflow was detected at least once during the monitoring period at 87 percent of the monitoring sites (45 of the 52 sites that returned useful data; includes 4 streamflow-gaging stations). The summer monsoon period accounted for 82 percent of all streamflow events by number and 71 percent of all events by total streamflow duration. Nonmonsoon streamflow events peaked in number, total streamflow duration, and mean streamflow duration midway between the Huachuca Mountains and the San Pedro River on the west side of the subwatershed. These three streamflow parameters dropped off sharply about 10 kilometers from the mountain front. The number and total duration of nonmonsoon streamflows on the east side of the subwatershed trended downward with increased distance from the mountain fronts. Monsoon streamflow events were more evenly distributed across the subwatershed than nonmonsoon events, and the number and duration of streamflows generally trended upward with distance from the mountain fronts. Additional years of data are needed to determine whether these patterns are consistent year to year, or were due to randomness in the spatial distribution of precipitation. Streamflows in three ephemeral-stream channels were analyzed in detail. More than two-thirds of the streamflow events detected in each of these channels occurred at no more than one monitoring site along the channel length. In only one of the three channels—Garden Canyon—was a streamflow event detected at all logger sites along its length. Five temperature loggers provided data from urbanized areas, and these loggers detected streamflow more than 50 percent more often and of a duration nearly three times greater than did temperature loggers across the rural parts of the subwatershed. Because historical records do not indicate that more precipitation occurs in the urbanized area than in the rural areas, the increased frequency of flow detection in the urban area is attributed to an increase in runoff from the impervious surfaces throughout the urbanized area.





Purpose and Scope

Description of the Study Area

Vegetation and Climate

Methods of Investigation


Application of Theory

Installation of Temperature Loggers

Monitoring Sites

Precipitation Patterns During the Monitoring Period

Timing and Duration of Flow in Ephemeral Streams

Spatial Streamflow Patterns

Temporal Streamflow Patterns

Frequency of Streamflow in Three Representative Channels

Garden Canyon Wash

Ramsey Canyon Wash

Greenbush Draw

Variability of Streamflow in Three Representative Channels

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited


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For more information about USGS activities in Arizona, visit the USGS Arizona Water Science Center home page

Send questions or comments about this report to Bruce Gungle, (520) 670-6671.

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