Articles | Volume 19, issue 4
Research article
17 Apr 2015
Research article |  | 17 Apr 2015

Characteristics and controls of variability in soil moisture and groundwater in a headwater catchment

H. K. McMillan and M. S. Srinivasan

Abstract. Hydrological processes, including runoff generation, depend on the distribution of water in a catchment, which varies in space and time. This paper presents experimental results from a headwater research catchment in New Zealand, where we made distributed measurements of streamflow, soil moisture and groundwater levels, sampling across a range of aspects, hillslope positions, distances from stream and depths. Our aim was to assess the controls, types and implications of spatial and temporal variability in soil moisture and groundwater tables.

We found that temporal variability in soil moisture and water table is strongly controlled by the seasonal cycle in potential evapotranspiration, for both the mean and extremes of their distributions. Groundwater is a larger water storage component than soil moisture, and this general difference increases even more with increasing catchment wetness. The spatial standard deviation of both soil moisture and groundwater is larger in winter than in summer. It peaks during rainfall events due to partial saturation of the catchment, and also rises in spring as different locations dry out at different rates. The most important controls on spatial variability in storage are aspect and distance from the stream. South-facing and near-stream locations have higher water tables and showed soil moisture responses for more events. Typical hydrological models do not explicitly account for aspect, but our results suggest that it is an important factor in hillslope runoff generation.

Co-measurement of soil moisture and water table level allowed us to identify relationships between the two. Locations where water tables peaked closer to the surface had consistently wetter soils and higher water tables. These wetter sites were the same across seasons. However, patterns of strong soil moisture responses to summer storms did not correspond to the wetter sites.

Total catchment spatial variability is composed of multiple variability sources, and the dominant type is sensitive to those stores that are close to a threshold such as field capacity or saturation. Therefore, we classified spatial variability as "summer mode" or "winter mode". In "summer mode", variability is controlled by shallow processes, e.g. interaction of water with soils and vegetation. In "winter mode", variability is controlled by deeper processes, e.g. groundwater movement and bypass flow. Double streamflow peaks observed during some events show the direct impact of groundwater variability on runoff generation. Our results suggest that emergent catchment behaviour depends on the combination of these multiple, time varying components of storage variability.

Short summary
River flows depend not only on how much water is in a catchment, but also on where the water is stored, which changes over time. We monitored streamflow, soil moisture, and groundwater levels in a NZ catchment, to find out what controls water storage and variability. We found that the catchment had a summer mode where water storage is controlled by near-surface interactions of water with soils and vegetation, and a winter mode where water storage is controlled by deeper groundwater movement.