Drought impacts on river salinity in the southern US: Implications for water scarcity

Edward Jones*, Michelle T.H. van Vliet

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

37 Citations (Scopus)


Hydrological droughts have a diverse range of effects on water resources. Whilst the impacts of drought on water quantity are well studied, the impacts on water quality have received far less attention. Similarly, quantifications of water scarcity have typically lacked water quality dimensions, whilst sectoral water uses are associated with both water quantity and quality requirements. Here we aim to combine these two elements, focussing on impacts of droughts on river salinity levels and including a salinity dimension in quantifications of water scarcity during drought and extreme drought conditions. The impact of historical droughts on river salinity (electrical conductivity (EC) was studied at 66 monitoring stations located across the Southern USA for 2000–2017. Salinity was found to increase strongly (median increase of 21%) and statistically significantly (p ≤ 0.05) during drought conditions for 59/66 stations compared to non-drought conditions. In a next step, a salinity dimension was added to water scarcity quantifications for 15 river basins in Texas. Water scarcity was quantified using data of sector water uses, water availability, river salinity levels and salinity thresholds for sector water uses. Results showed that the dominant factor driving water scarcity highly differed per basin. Increases in water scarcity were further compounded by drought-induced decreases in water availability, increases in sectoral water demands and increases in river water salinity. This study demonstrates that droughts are associated with important increases in river salinity, in addition to reduced water availability, and that both of these aspects should be considered when quantifying water scarcity. Alleviating water scarcity should therefore not only focus on increasing water availability and reducing water demands (quantity aspects), but also on improving water quality.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)844-853
JournalScience of the Total Environment
Publication statusPublished - 10 Dec 2018


  • Droughts
  • River salinity
  • Sector use
  • Texas
  • United States
  • Water scarcity


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