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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Can machine learning accelerate process understanding and decision‐relevant predictions of river water quality?

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The global decline of water quality in rivers and streams has resulted in a pressing need to design new watershed management strategies. Water quality can be affected by multiple stressors including population growth, land use change, global warming, and extreme events, with repercussions on human and ecosystem health. A scientific understanding of factors affecting riverine water quality and predictions at local to regional scales, and at sub-daily to decadal timescales are needed for optimal management of watersheds and river basins. Here, we discuss how machine learning (ML) can enable development of more accurate, computationally tractable, and scalable models for analysis and predictions of river water quality. We review relevant state-of-the art applications of ML for water quality models and discuss opportunities to improve the use of ML with emerging computational and mathematical methods for model selection, hyperparameter optimization, incorporating process knowledge into ML models, improving explainablity, uncertainty quantification, and model-data integration. We then present considerations for using ML to address water quality problems given their scale and complexity, available data and computational resources, and stakeholder needs. When combined with decades of process understanding, interdisciplinary advances in knowledge-guided ML, information theory, data integration, and analytics can help address fundamental science questions and enable decision-relevant predictions of riverine water quality.

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