Articles | Volume 20, issue 11
Research article
11 Nov 2016
Research article |  | 11 Nov 2016

Multiple runoff processes and multiple thresholds control agricultural runoff generation

Shabnam Saffarpour, Andrew W. Western, Russell Adams, and Jeffrey J. McDonnell

Abstract. Thresholds and hydrologic connectivity associated with runoff processes are a critical concept for understanding catchment hydrologic response at the event timescale. To date, most attention has focused on single runoff response types, and the role of multiple thresholds and flow path connectivities has not been made explicit. Here we first summarise existing knowledge on the interplay between thresholds, connectivity and runoff processes at the hillslope–small catchment scale into a single figure and use it in examining how runoff response and the catchment threshold response to rainfall affect a suite of runoff generation mechanisms in a small agricultural catchment. A 1.37 ha catchment in the Lang Lang River catchment, Victoria, Australia, was instrumented and hourly data of rainfall, runoff, shallow groundwater level and isotope water samples were collected. The rainfall, runoff and antecedent soil moisture data together with water levels at several shallow piezometers are used to identify runoff processes in the study site. We use isotope and major ion results to further support the findings of the hydrometric data. We analyse 60 rainfall events that produced 38 runoff events over two runoff seasons. Our results show that the catchment hydrologic response was typically controlled by the Antecedent Soil Moisture Index and rainfall characteristics. There was a strong seasonal effect in the antecedent moisture conditions that led to marked seasonal-scale changes in runoff response. Analysis of shallow well data revealed that streamflows early in the runoff season were dominated primarily by saturation excess overland flow from the riparian area. As the runoff season progressed, the catchment soil water storage increased and the hillslopes connected to the riparian area. The hillslopes transferred a significant amount of water to the riparian zone during and following events. Then, during a particularly wet period, this connectivity to the riparian zone, and ultimately to the stream, persisted between events for a period of 1 month. These findings are supported by isotope results which showed the dominance of pre-event water, together with significant contributions of event water early (rising limb and peak) in the event hydrograph. Based on a combination of various hydrometric analyses and some isotope and major ion data, we conclude that event runoff at this site is typically a combination of subsurface event flow and saturation excess overland flow. However, during high intensity rainfall events, flashy catchment flow was observed even though the soil moisture threshold for activation of subsurface flow was not exceeded. We hypothesise that this was due to the activation of infiltration excess overland flow and/or fast lateral flow through preferential pathways on the hillslope and saturation overland flow from the riparian zone.

Short summary
A variety of threshold mechanisms influence the transfer of rainfall to runoff from catchments. Some of these mechanisms depend on the occurrence of intense rainfall and others depend on the catchment being wet. This article first provides a framework for considering which mechanisms are important in different situations and then uses that framework to examine the behaviour of a catchment in Australia that exhibits a mix of both rainfall intensity and catchment wetness dependent thresholds.