Zero or not? Causes and consequences of zero-flow stream gage readings

Margaret A. Zimmer, Kendra E. Kaiser, Joanna R. Blaszczak, Samuel C. Zipper, John C. Hammond, Ken M. Fritz, Katie H. Costigan, Jacob Hosen, Sarah E. Godsey, George H. Allen, Stephanie Kampf, Ryan M. Burrows, Corey A. Krabbenhoft, Walter Dodds, Rebecca Hale, Julian D. Olden, Margaret Shanafield, Amanda G. DelVecchia, Adam S. Ward, Meryl C. MimsThibault Datry, Michael T. Bogan, Kate S. Boersma, Michelle H. Busch, C. Nathan Jones, Amy J. Burgin, Daniel C. Allen

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

44 Citations (Scopus)


Streamflow observations can be used to understand, predict, and contextualize hydrologic, ecological, and biogeochemical processes and conditions in streams. Stream gages are point measurements along rivers where streamflow is measured, and are often used to infer upstream watershed-scale processes. When stream gages read zero, this may indicate that the stream has dried at this location; however, zero-flow readings can also be caused by a wide range of other factors. Our ability to identify whether or not a zero-flow gage reading indicates a dry fluvial system has far reaching environmental implications. Incorrect identification and interpretation by the data user can lead to inaccurate hydrologic, ecological, and/or biogeochemical predictions from models and analyses. Here, we describe several causes of zero-flow gage readings: frozen surface water, flow reversals, instrument error, and natural or human-driven upstream source losses or bypass flow. For these examples, we discuss the implications of zero-flow interpretations. We also highlight additional methods for determining flow presence, including direct observations, statistical methods, and hydrologic models, which can be applied to interpret causes of zero-flow gage readings and implications for reach- and watershed-scale dynamics. Such efforts are necessary to improve our ability to understand and predict surface flow activation, cessation, and connectivity across river networks. Developing this integrated understanding of the wide range of possible meanings of zero-flows will only attain greater importance in a more variable and changing hydrologic climate. This article is categorized under: Science of Water > Methods Science of Water > Hydrological Processes Water and Life > Conservation, Management, and Awareness. Common scenarios of zero‐flow readings at gages that may be misinterpreted without stream conditions or network‐scale context. Many of these scenarios have distinct natural and anthropogenic drivers as well as implications for local and network‐scale stream ecosystems and hydrology.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere1436
Number of pages25
JournalWiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Water
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2020


  • aquatic network
  • non-perennial
  • stream gages
  • streamflow
  • zero flow


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