The overall water balance and the sensitivity of watershed runoff to changes in climate are investigated using national databases of climate and streamflow for 1,337 watersheds in the U.S. We document that 1% changes in precipitation result in 1.5–2.5% changes in watershed runoff, depending upon the degree of buffering by storage processes and other factors. Unlike previous research, our approach to estimating climate sensitivity of streamflow is nonparametric and does not depend on a hydrologic model. The upper bound for precipitation elasticity of streamflow is shown to be the inverse of the runoff ratio. For over a century, investigators [Pike, 1964; Budyko, 1974; Ol'dekop, 1911; and Schreiber, 1904] have suggested that variations in watershed aridity alone are sufficient to predict spatial variations in long-term watershed runoff. We document that variations in soil moisture holding capacity are just as important as variations in watershed aridity in explaining the mean and variance of annual watershed runoff.