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Understanding hydrological flow paths in conceptual catchment models using uncertainty and sensitivity analysis

Mockler, Eva M., O’Loughlin, Fiachra E., Bruen, Michael
Computers & geosciences 2016 v.90 pp. 66-77
base flow, computers, decision making, environmental sustainability, groundwater, groundwater flow, hydrologic models, nitrates, nutrients, rivers, runoff, time series analysis, uncertainty, variance, water quality, watersheds
Increasing pressures on water quality due to intensification of agriculture have raised demands for environmental modeling to accurately simulate the movement of diffuse (nonpoint) nutrients in catchments. As hydrological flows drive the movement and attenuation of nutrients, individual hydrological processes in models should be adequately represented for water quality simulations to be meaningful. In particular, the relative contribution of groundwater and surface runoff to rivers is of interest, as increasing nitrate concentrations are linked to higher groundwater discharges. These requirements for hydrological modeling of groundwater contribution to rivers initiated this assessment of internal flow path partitioning in conceptual hydrological models.In this study, a variance based sensitivity analysis method was used to investigate parameter sensitivities and flow partitioning of three conceptual hydrological models simulating 31 Irish catchments. We compared two established conceptual hydrological models (NAM and SMARG) and a new model (SMART), produced especially for water quality modeling. In addition to the criteria that assess streamflow simulations, a ratio of average groundwater contribution to total streamflow was calculated for all simulations over the 16 year study period. As observations time-series of groundwater contributions to streamflow are not available at catchment scale, the groundwater ratios were evaluated against average annual indices of base flow and deep groundwater flow for each catchment. The exploration of sensitivities of internal flow path partitioning was a specific focus to assist in evaluating model performances. Results highlight that model structure has a strong impact on simulated groundwater flow paths. Sensitivity to the internal pathways in the models are not reflected in the performance criteria results. This demonstrates that simulated groundwater contribution should be constrained by independent data to ensure results within realistic bounds if such models are to be used in the broader environmental sustainability decision making context.