Articles | Volume 17, issue 10
Research article
01 Oct 2013
Research article |  | 01 Oct 2013

Prediction of dissolved reactive phosphorus losses from small agricultural catchments: calibration and validation of a parsimonious model

C. Hahn, V. Prasuhn, C. Stamm, P. Lazzarotto, M. W. H. Evangelou, and R. Schulin

Abstract. Eutrophication of surface waters due to diffuse phosphorus (P) losses continues to be a severe water quality problem worldwide, causing the loss of ecosystem functions of the respective water bodies. Phosphorus in runoff often originates from a small fraction of a catchment only. Targeting mitigation measures to these critical source areas (CSAs) is expected to be most efficient and cost-effective, but requires suitable tools.

Here we investigated the capability of the parsimonious Rainfall-Runoff-Phosphorus (RRP) model to identify CSAs in grassland-dominated catchments based on readily available soil and topographic data. After simultaneous calibration on runoff data from four small hilly catchments on the Swiss Plateau, the model was validated on a different catchment in the same region without further calibration. The RRP model adequately simulated the discharge and dissolved reactive P (DRP) export from the validation catchment. Sensitivity analysis showed that the model predictions were robust with respect to the classification of soils into "poorly drained" and "well drained", based on the available soil map. Comparing spatial hydrological model predictions with field data from the validation catchment provided further evidence that the assumptions underlying the model are valid and that the model adequately accounts for the dominant P export processes in the target region. Thus, the parsimonious RRP model is a valuable tool that can be used to determine CSAs. Despite the considerable predictive uncertainty regarding the spatial extent of CSAs, the RRP can provide guidance for the implementation of mitigation measures. The model helps to identify those parts of a catchment where high DRP losses are expected or can be excluded with high confidence. Legacy P was predicted to be the dominant source for DRP losses and thus, in combination with hydrologic active areas, a high risk for water quality.