We compare statistical and hydrological methods to estimate design floods by proposing a framework that is based on assuming a synthetic scenario considered as ‘truth’ and use it as a benchmark for analysing results. To illustrate the framework, we used probability model selection and model averaging as statistical methods, while continuous simulations made with a simple and a perfect rainfall–runoff model are used as hydrological methods. The results of our numerical exercise show that design floods estimated by using a simple rainfall–runoff model have small parameter uncertainty and limited errors, even for high return periods. Statistical methods perform better than the linear reservoir model in terms of median errors for high return periods, but their uncertainty (i.e., variance of the error) is larger. Moreover, selecting the best fitting probability distribution is associated with numerous outliers. On the contrary, using multiple probability distributions, regardless of their capability in fitting the data, leads to significantly less outliers, while keeping a similar accuracy. Thus, we find that, among the statistical methods, model averaging is a better option than model selection. Our results also show the relevance of the precautionary principle in design flood estimation, and thus help develop general recommendations for practitioners and experts involved in flood risk reduction.

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