Do Baseflow Impacts of Urbanization Warrant Green Infrastructure Retrofits to Restore Water Balance?

Green infrastructure, low impact development practices (LIDs), also called stormwater management best management practices (SWM BMPs), are often proposed to restore water balance functions and mitigate impacts or urbanization on runoff and recharge. One argument is that baseflows are lowered due to reduced infiltration and discharges to watercourses. It is a simple textbook theory.

What does the data show on baseflow impacts? The following slide presentation was prepared to respond to the Ontario draft LID guidance manual in early 2017 since water balance impacts have been cited as justification for green infrastructure LIDs.

Local studies show that baseflows have increased over decades of urbanization, calling into question the need for such measures considering that potential impact has not materialized. As noted in TRCA's Approved Updated Assessment Report under the Clean Water Act, at most gauges there was an upward trend in baseflows which prompted this statement: "These overall increases to baseflow volumes are contrary to the common thought that increased impervious cover leads to reduced baseflow" - so for those keeping score, data - one, common thought - zero. (see page 3-40 at link to full report - disregard old link in the slide deck thx!).

TMIG also analyzed baseflows in the GTA and noted “The seven-day average consecutive low flow data provides an indication of the observed baseflows within a watercourse, and hence is a suitable measure for determining whether baseflow trends exist in an urbanizing area. The trend analysis identified noticeable baseflow trends in 13 of the 24 recording stations. Of these eight urban and two rural stations exhibited an upward trend, suggesting increasing baseflow.” (link to full report).

It would appear that baseflow stresses due to urbanization, i.e., development within the GTA, do not support the need for green infrastructure implementation to restore water balance functions.