Steady versus Unsteady Flow

Written by Chris Goodell | January 11, 2010

Written by Chris Goodell, P.E., D. WRE | WEST Consultants
Copyright © 2010. All rights reserved.

I was recently emailed this question regarding steady flow versus unsteady flow results:

“My question is fairly basic. I have heard from a couple of other engineers that when flood levels are generated with usteady flows that it is typical to then run a steady simulation with the routed flows from the unsteady run as unsteady results may be considered less accurate? Is this standard or conventional practice to your knowledge? “

While it is common to have a companion steady flow version, I would disagree that this is done because unsteady results are considered less accurate. Two equally well constructed models, one steady, one unsteady could certainly produce different results, but the unsteady will be more accurate. The unsteady flow St. Venant equations are more physically correct than the energy equation which is used to compute steady flow. From a numerical standpoint, the energy equation has an advantage in that it can be analytically solved, yielding an exact solution. The unsteady flow equations must be reduced to a discrete form (finite difference approximation) to solve, so there is some built-in error. However, if done correctly, this error is inconsequential for river models. RAS does a good job of this. The biggest difference is that steady flow models do not take into account the effects of in-channel and off-line storage in the attenuation of the flood wave. This can be quite significant. Some modelers take the tact of constructing a steady flow model with the computed routed flows from the unsteady flow model. While this is a “forced” way of accounting for the storage effect, it is no more accurate than its unsteady counterpart. And it would be a significant effort to set up a steady flow model with a flow change at every cross section. I don’t recommend it.

In short, given two equally well constructed models, one steady and one unsteady, of the same reach, I would take the results from the unsteady flow model every time.

Any other thoughts out there on this subject?


  1. AnthonyH

    on March 26, 2010

    One reason I've heard is that the floodway methodology doesn't work the same way in unsteady mode. Using this method should allow one to construct the unsteady model to handle the routing of the flood wave, then take the peak flows and use them for floodplain mapping and floodway definition.

    Also, the water surface elevations reached using this method should be somewhat higher than the unsteady results, as they are using peak-on-peak flow values. That would be seen as a conservative estimate of water surface elevation.

    I'm not sure I like the method, but these are the reasons I've heard.

  2. Jamie

    on August 20, 2011

    You have a good point in your post. May I know your source for those ideas so that I could cite it in my document?

  3. Chris G.

    on August 20, 2011

    I can't give you a single source. A lot comes from my own study and research. The RAS manuals discuss a lot of this, as would any graduate level textbook that covers unsteady open channel flow hydraulics. You are welcome to reference this blog post if you'd like.

  4. morgan omale

    on July 28, 2017

    Hi can HEC RAS give me water surface levels i.e flows or volumes when my flood is routed…I mean I have Qp can the soft ware generate the rest volume flows down along the lin…So i can produce innundation mapping. Have various flows at each cross section from my only initial flow Qp…Reply ASAP

  5. Chris Goodell

    on July 28, 2017

    In unsteady flow, yes. But not in steady flow.

  6. Unknown

    on September 15, 2017

    Hi. This may be off topic but how can I restrict the flow in the main channel using steady state flow? I tried using the stready state flow and it turns out that there is water on other low lying areas aside from the main channel that I assigned. The problem is that the topography of my study area is very rough.

  7. Chris Goodell

    on September 15, 2017

    You can try using levee markers, ineffective flow areas, and/or blocked obstructions to do this in a variety of ways. Each works a little differently but can have the effect you desire. Read up on all three to learn the differences between them-that will help you decide which to use for you application.

  8. JJ Nitro

    on September 15, 2017

    Thank you very much! I am glad that this site is very active.

  9. AR V

    on December 13, 2017

    Hi Chris, thank's for your post. If we have just a peak flood volume based on FFA methd. How I can produce Hydrograph from this peak flood and run the model in unsteady mode?

  10. Chris Goodell

    on December 13, 2017

    You have to assume a duration, then you can create a simple triangular hydrograph. Does your gage have daily or even hourly data? If so, you could look at past floods and get an idea of flood durations as well as baseflows to use.

  11. Jack

    on April 29, 2018

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. Jack

    on April 29, 2018

    Hi chris,
    I have performed hydraulic modelling for an urban channel
    The results that i have obtained using steady flow regime is better than unsteady flow regime
    My doubt is that, is it correct to model flow in constructed channel in stedy flow regime

  13. Chris Goodell

    on April 29, 2018

    The type of channel is less of an issue than the amount of available storage in the system as well as the type of event you’re trying the model. Fast, rapidly rising and falling flood events with a relatively large amount of storage would not do wel with steady flow. Long duration storms that hold at the peak for a long time and that have relatively small amounts of available storage will do okay in steady flow.

  14. Jack

    on April 29, 2018

    I am modelling extreme rainfall event of 451 mm in 4 hours
    The peak discharge value obtained from HMS is 122 cumec

  15. Chris Goodell

    on May 6, 2018

    Yes, sounds like unsteady would be a better option for you. I would expect conservatively high (and inaccurate) results with a steady flow model for this kind of event.

  16. Krishna

    on September 5, 2018

    Dear sir,
    I am doing a study on inundation mapping after concrete gravity dam break. My issue is how to fix the breach parameters and calculate the discharge from that opening to use in HEC-RAS. Please suggest me the methods to calculate the discharge after gravity dam break ASAP. Dam is 140 m tall from foundation, 40 wide in bottom and 200 meter wide in top located in a gorge.

  17. West

    on October 7, 2019

    Hi Chris.

    Here is a question about whether or not/how to use HEC-RAS.

    There is a wastewater holding pond built upstream and beside a creek. This creek is a seasonal type and becomes grassy and dry during fall and winter.

    Can I use HEC-RAS to predict how long water can go from the pond, if I release certain amount of water from the holding pond for, such as, 5 hours?


  18. Chris G.

    on October 8, 2019

    Yes. I very simple unsteady flow model.

  19. West

    on October 9, 2019

    Thanks Chris, I might forget one condition: that is I only release water in fall or even winter when the channel is totally dry.

    So can I still use HEC-RAS unsteady flow model in such situation?

  20. Chris G.

    on October 15, 2019

    cross sections can't go dry currently in HEC-RAS. RAS is soon to release a new version that will allow this, but for now, if you want to model wetting and drying in a channel, you'll have to use a 2D area instead of cross sections.

  21. Shreya Shakya

    on September 7, 2020

    I am using HEC RAS(steady flow) model for the risk mapping of a relatively small river. Is it okay to do steady analysis even though floods are unsteady?

  22. Chris Goodell

    on September 9, 2020

    Typically yes. Just be aware that steady flow assumes that the peak of the flood wave holds long enough for the reach you are modeling to reach a steady state condition (inflow = outflow). If that is appropriate for what you are doing, then yes, go with steady flow.

  23. Mani

    on March 3, 2022

    Hi Chris,
    Thanks for sharing your knowledge. We completed a systems-level flood risk assessment to assess the capacity of watercourse crossings (bridges and culverts) under current and future climate scenarios to identify candidate projects for enhanced resilience measures. The general approach was to extract the crossing information from the hydraulic models and assess whether or not the crossing was able to pass the return period flows for flood-design criteria. It is an HEC-RAS model (1 and 2 D), steady-state flow, but, we accounted for offsite storage. Do you think the finding will significantly vary if we had used unsteady flow analysis. Please advise.

  24. Chris Goodell

    on March 4, 2022

    If you have a lot of off-channel storage and/or you have a relatively dynamic hydrograph, then yes, it can make a big difference. I would suggest running an unsteady flow hydrograph through your model to check.

  25. Andy R

    on May 10, 2023

    Hi everyone. Great discussion. Based upon the conversations above, I’m concluding that Steady flow is more conservative that unsteady for an urbanized stream. Can that be considered a universally true statement, or are there nuances that I’m missing? Thanks.

  26. Chris Goodell

    on May 18, 2023

    Generally yes, you are correct, if by conservative you mean produces higher water surface elevations. Of course, the more complicated your model, the more nuanced this concept becomes.

Add Your Comment

Leave a Reply

1 × 2 =

Related Posts