Articles | Volume 19, issue 10
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 4183–4199, 2015
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 4183–4199, 2015

Research article 20 Oct 2015

Research article | 20 Oct 2015

Understanding runoff processes in a semi-arid environment through isotope and hydrochemical hydrograph separations

V. V. Camacho Suarez1, A. M. L. Saraiva Okello1,2, J. W. Wenninger1,2, and S. Uhlenbrook1,2 V. V. Camacho Suarez et al.
  • 1Department of Water Science and Engineering, UNESCO-IHE Institute for Water Education, P.O. Box 3015, 2601 DA Delft, the Netherlands
  • 2Section of Water Resources, Delft University of Technology, P.O. Box 5048, 2600 GA Delft, the Netherlands

Abstract. The understanding of runoff generation mechanisms is crucial for the sustainable management of river basins such as the allocation of water resources or the prediction of floods and droughts. However, identifying the mechanisms of runoff generation has been a challenging task, even more so in arid and semi-arid areas where high rainfall and streamflow variability, high evaporation rates, and deep groundwater reservoirs may increase the complexity of hydrological process dynamics. Isotope and hydrochemical tracers have proven to be useful in identifying runoff components and their characteristics. Moreover, although widely used in humid temperate regions, isotope hydrograph separations have not been studied in detail in arid and semi-arid areas. Thus the purpose of this study is to determine whether isotope hydrograph separations are suitable for the quantification and characterization of runoff components in a semi-arid catchment considering the hydrological complexities of these regions. Through a hydrochemical characterization of the surface water and groundwater sources of the catchment and two- and three-component hydrograph separations, runoff components of the Kaap catchment in South Africa were quantified using both isotope and hydrochemical tracers. No major disadvantages while using isotope tracers over hydrochemical tracers were found. Hydrograph separation results showed that runoff in the Kaap catchment is mainly generated by groundwater sources. Two-component hydrograph separations revealed groundwater contributions of between 64 and 98 % of total runoff. By means of three-component hydrograph separations, runoff components were further separated into direct runoff, shallow and deep groundwater components. Direct runoff, defined as the direct precipitation on the stream channel and overland flow, contributed up to 41 % of total runoff during wet catchment conditions. Shallow groundwater defined as the soil water and near-surface water component (and potentially surface runoff) contributed up to 45 % of total runoff, and deep groundwater contributed up to 84 % of total runoff. A strong correlation for the four studied events was found between the antecedent precipitation conditions and direct runoff. These findings suggest that direct runoff is enhanced by wetter conditions in the catchment that trigger saturation excess overland flow as observed in the hydrograph separations.

Short summary
Isotope and hydrochemical tracers are tested providing new insights to isotope hydrograph in semi-arid areas in southern Africa. This study provides a spatial hydrochemical characterization of surface and groundwater sources, end member mixing analysis, and two- and three-component hydrograph separations. Results showed that the Kaap catchment is mainly dominated by groundwater sources, and direct runoff is positively correlated with the Antecedent Precipitation Index during the wet season.