The Role of the Hydrographer in Rating Curve Development

Stuart Hamilton, Marianne Watson, Robin Pike


Stage-discharge rating curves are used to produce most of the world’s discharge data. The shape of these curves is dependent on the shape of the channel that controls flow. Changes in rating curves occur over time in response to transitory (e.g., vegetation, ice, debris) or persistent (e.g., aggradation/degradation) changes of the rated channel. Errors in rating curve development can result from the mischaracterization of the shape of the curve at a given time, or the misidentification of patterns of change over time. While data-driven methods for rating curve calibration are desirable, conventional statistical regression techniques, unfortunately, require far more data points to fully characterize the patterns of change in the curve shapes than are commonly available. This article discusses the benefits of field observations of the stream channel in support of rating curve development. The mathematical form of the rating curve can be inferred from observations of natural channel control features that link to principles of flow. In this article, the theoretical components of the rating curve equation are discussed with emphasis on how field observations can be used to groundtruth calibrated values for the coefficient, offset, and exponent for each segment of a stage-discharge rating curve. The article also explains how conceptual models developed by the hydrographer add value to the calibration process.


hydrometry; rating curve; stage; discharge; streamflow

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