Dr. Tim Peterson

Dr. Tim Peterson

Senior Lecturer in Environmental Engineering
Department of Civil Engineering
Room G24, 23 College Walk (B60), Clayton Campus

I have over 17 years’ experience in hydrological and hydrogeological research and consulting. After completing an applied maths degrees and environmental degree at Monash, I spent 5 years working at SKM Consulting within the catchment planning group, working on both surface water and groundwater projects within the Melbourne and regional Victorian offices. Following a year in Hanoi, Vitenam, with AusAID I commenced a PhD at the University of Melbourne in 2005. My PhD (completed 2009) presented pioneering work on catchment resilience and multiple steady states (http://hdl.handle.net/11343/35439) and I was subsequently awarded an Australian Research Council Post-doctoral Fellowship to continue this research at the University of Melbourne.

From 2010-2019, I was a research fellow/senior research fellow at the University of Melbourne, Department of Infrastructure Engineering. During this time I have attracted multiple Australian Research Council Linkage projects and industry research funding, including the hydrology component of the Victorian Government Water and Climate Initiative, and worked closely with state and federal government agencies.

From October 2019, I moved to Monash to take up a senior lecturer position.


  • PhD, The University of Melbourne
  • Bachelor of Environmental Engineering (Honours, 1st Class), Monash University
  • Bachelor of Science (Applied Maths), Monash University

Research Interests

I focus on detecting long-term change in catchment hydrological processes and drivers early enough so that society can be act. Central to this is understanding when and where catchments do and do not recovery from disturbances, such as droughts or land cover change. To achieve these insights, I generally use numerical models to frame the questions and statistical analysis of long-term observation data to answer the questions – an approach with provides insights and requires few assumptions.

All of my research is focused on social-outcomes and I strive to place my research within Pasteur’s quadrant; that is, advancing both fundamental understanding and applied outcomes. To achieve this, I work closely with state and federal governments and engineering consultancies and in collaboration with them I have developed the following industry-adopted open-source packages:

  • HydroSight is a highly flexible statistical package (with a graphical interface) for deriving quantitative insights value from groundwater monitoring data. HydroSight has been adopted by the Bureau of Meteorology and state government agencies and many consultants and has been downloaded >765 times from many countries.
  • HydroMap is a powerful R package for kriging interpolation of sparse groundwater level observations – that is, groundwater potentiometry. HydroMap has been adopted by the Bureau of Meteorology for the National Water Accounts.
  • AWAPer is an R package for the efficient extraction of daily catchment average precipitation, Tmin, Tmax, vapour pressure, solar radiation and estimation of areal potential evaporation anywhere within Australia.
  • Catchment Resilience Model is hillslope Boussinesq semi-distributed hydrological model for quantitively understanding hydrological positive feedbacks, resilience and attractors.

Currently, I am developing time-series statistical approaches for understanding when and where rainfall runoff has not recovered from droughts. This project is heavily supported by the Victorian Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), and get some insights into this work see my presentation at the DELWP Science Day.

For an up to date list of all of my publications see Google Scholar or ORCID. Below is a summary of five of my favourite publications.

  • Peterson T. J., Argent R. M., Western A. W. and Chiew F. H. S. (2009), Multiple stable states in hydrological models: An eco-hydrological investigation, Water Resources Research, 45(3), W03406, DOI: 10.1029/2008WR006886

This paper was a pioneering contribution to hydrological resilience. It falsified the implicit assumption in hydrology that catchments always recovery from disturbances, such as droughts and floods, and hence have an infinite resilience. This was achieved by identifying positive feedbacks in catchment hydrology and showing that when added to a semi-distributed surface-groundwater width-varying hillslope Boussinesq model that two steady state streamflow and groundwater levels can arise for identical parameters and forcing. The study required implementation of numerous numerical schemes such as an implicit nonlinear PDE solver and PDE limit-cycle continuation.

  • Peterson T. J., Western A. W. and Argent R. M. (2012), Analytical methods for ecosystem resilience: A hydrological investigation, Water Resources Research. 48(10) – American Geophysical Union Feature Article. DOI: 10.1029/2012WR012150

This paper was selected by the American Geophysical Union (AGU) chief editors as a Feature Paper of the Union. It uses analytical calculus to identify the catchment filling and draining conditions that can lead to a finite or infinite resilience. Stochastic climate data was then used to identify how a catchment switches steady states (i.e. attractors) in response to wet and dry periods. Temporary steady states that emerge only during climate extremes were then identified; a finding which advances both hydrology and the broader field of ecosystem resilience. This paper, and subsequently two papers (Peterson et al. 2014A, 2014B), led to invited speakerships to the AGU Falling Meeting (USA, 2015) and the Gordon Research Conference (USA, 2015).

  • Peterson T. J. and Western A. W. (2014), Nonlinear time-series modeling of unconfined groundwater head, Water Resources Research, 50, 8330–8355, DOI: 10.1002/2013WR014800

This paper presents the first nonlinear groundwater hydrograph time-series approach. It laid the foundation for two PhDs, DP120100253 and HydroSight (http://peterson-tim-j.github.io/HydroSight/); a groundwater statistical modelling framework that has been adopted by the Bureau of Meteorology, a number of state natural resource agencies and consulting firms GHD and Jacobs.  The appeal of HydroSight has been its data-driven statistical approach for identifying subsurface processes and properties and spatial heterogeneity. For details of the subsequent 6+ papers see the HydroSight wiki page.

  • Su C. S., Peterson T. J., Costelloe J. F., Western A. W. (2016), A synthetic study to evaluate the utility of hydrological signatures for calibrating a base flow separation filter, Water Resources Research 52 (8), 6526-6540, DOI: 10.1002/2015WR018177 

For decades the slow flow component of total streamflow (i.e. baseflow) has been estimated using signal-processing techniques that are tweaked until the results “look right”. This approach is subjective and makes poor use of the available data for understanding catchment processes. This paper build on Su et al. (2016) to presents an approach to objectively and reproducibly estimate baseflow using signal-processing techniques. The approach identifies baseflow simulations that honour the observed statistical properties of the total streamflow and the climate-streamflow interactions.

  • White E. K., Peterson T. J., Costelloe J. F., Western A. W. (2016), Can we manage groundwater? A method to determine the quantitative testability of groundwater management plans, Water Resources Research 52 (6), 4863-4882, DOI: 10.1002/2015WR018474

This paper argues that natural resource management, and particularly groundwater management, is unstructured and the effectiveness of management remains unquantified; and may potentially compound problems. It structures natural resource management as a control-theory problem where resource managers are the controller and the only partially observed environment as the plant. The framework was then used to examine 15 Australian groundwater management plans and only 47% plans were found to be testable. A more recent paper quantitatively tests the effectiveness of management (White et al, 2019). This study was undertaken by my PhD student, Emma White.

Australian Research Council

ARC LP180100796: Observed streamflow generation changes: better understanding and modelling $898,676 (ARC: $538,676, Partners $360,000) over 3 years, CI Peel & Peterson.

This project aims to investigate drivers and triggers of variable streamflow response during and after drought and develop modelling strategies and model structures more robust to changing streamflow response. In many catchments during the Millennium Drought, streamflow generation was less than expected and hydrologic models performed poorly. After the drought, streamflow generation is yet to recover in some catchments. This Project expects to generate new knowledge about variable streamflow response to drought and develop strategies and models to robustly simulate runoff during and after changed conditions, which should provide significant benefit via better understanding and modelling of streamflow response under changing conditions.

ARC-LP0991280: A new paradigm for catchment management: detection, forecasting and management of water catchments with multiple steady states $524,000 (ARC: $374,000, Partners: $150,000) over 3 years, CIs Western & Peterson.

The project challenged a fundamental and widespread assumption within hydrology that catchments are infinitely resilient to disturbances. The proposal was conceived and written by myself and built upon the theoretical findings from my PhD. I was a Chief Investigator on the project and was awarded an ARC Post-doctoral Fellowship (APDI). Outcomes from the project include four first author papers in Water Resources Research, one of which as selected as a Feature Article by the American Geophysical Union and the adoption of project outputs by the Bureau of Meteorology for the National Water Accounts.

Government Agencies

Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning: Victorian Catchment Drought Response and Recovery: Understanding where and why. $1.1M, 2017-20 financial year.  CIs Peel and Peterson

The Millennium Drought exposed major deficiencies in hydrological theories explaining catchment response to and recover from prolonged droughts. In some Victorian catchments during the Millennium Drought significantly less streamflow was generated for a given rainfall that expected1. After the drought, 73% of the 72 Bureau of Meteorology reference catchments had not recovered by December 20152. These dynamics are consistent with catchments having multiple steady states, and present the first field evidence that catchments have a finite resilience to disturbances. The Victorian Government recognises the implications of these findings to water security and are funding a 3 years research program as part of the Water For Victoria strategy. The project aims to:

  1. Quantify the response to, and recovery from, prolonged drought in Victoria’s gauged catchments;
  2. Understand the climatic and biophysical cause(s) of the response and recovery, and;
  3. Develop hydrological tools based on insights gained from this research to improve water management during prolonged droughts.

1 Saft M, Western AW, Zhang L, Peel MC, Potter NJ (2015). The influence of multiyear drought on the annual rainfall-runoff relationship: An Australian perspective. Water Resources Research, 51, 2444–2463.

2 Peterson TJ, John A, Western AW (in-prep). Catchment non-recovery to prolonged droughts.

Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning: VAF Enhancement using geostatistical analysis using hydrological tools (HydroSight). $164,855, 2017, Primary CI Peterson.

Estimates of aquifer conductivity and storativity is vital for understanding and managing groundwater security and fluxes. However, at all of Victoria’s major aquifers the estimates are non-existent or very uncertain. The Victorian Government are tackling this long-standing problem by funding a major extension to my HydroSight  (http://peterson-tim-j.github.io/HydroSight/) groundwater statistics package. The project aims to develop and test methods to quantify the aquifer hydraulic properties at two trial management areas using only observed groundwater hydrographs and the historic pumping data. A major challenge of the project will be to overcome the poor historic pumping data (annual timestep and commenced in 2001).  Preliminary results are promising and if successful the Government has agreed to fund application to all major Victorian aquifers.

Bureau of Meteorology: Strengthening AWRA-L groundwater flux and storage estimation. $250,112, 2017, CI Peterson and Ryu

This project aims to strengthen the deep fluxes and storages of the Bureau of Meteorology Australian Landscape Water Balance (AWRA-L) model by incorporating my monthly Victorian water table elevation maps for 1/1/1985-1/8/2014 (developed in ARC-LP130100958). This will be achieved by simultaneously calibrating multiple catchments to daily streamflow and distributed groundwater level and evaluating the outcomes at independent catchments. It is anticipated that constraining the deeper stores to the water table will improve both the slow and quickflow components of total streamflow, and potentially also the estimation of prolonged droughts. If the project is successful, the Bureau plan to apply my water table maps nationally and then apply the AWRA-L joint streamflow-groundwater calibration scheme nationally.

Bureau of Meteorology: Hydrologic change in rainfall-streamflow characteristics. $157,211, 2018, CI Western, Peel, Peterson and Saft

This project aims to apply the tools developed from the above project titled “Victorian Catchment Drought Response and Recovery” to understand change in runoff generation across Australia.



Vahid Shapoori
Groundwater head decomposition and aquifer hydraulic property estimation using a time-series modelling approach
2011 to 2015

Emma White
A quantitative evaluation of the effectiveness of groundwater management plans

Sina Khatami Mashhadi
Hydrological equifinality

Giancarlo Bonotto
Joint surface and groundwater modelling with HydroSight

Xinyang Fan
Climate change and groundwater

Last modified: 17/10/2019