Validating a spatially distributed hydrological model with soil morphology data
Spatially distributed models are popular tools in hydrology claimed to be useful to support management decisions. Despite the high spatial resolution of the computed variables, calibration and validation is often carried out only on discharge time series at specific locations due to the lack of spatially distributed reference data. Because of this restriction, the predictive power of these models, with regard to predicted spatial patterns, can usually not be judged.
An example of spatial predictions in hydrology is the prediction of saturated areas in agricultural catchments. These areas can be important source areas for inputs of agrochemicals to the stream. We set up a spatially distributed model to predict saturated areas in a 1.2 km 2 catchment in Switzerland with moderate topography and artificial drainage. We translated soil morphological data available from soil maps into an estimate of the duration of soil saturation in the soil horizons. This resulted in a data set with high spatial coverage on which the model predictions were validated. In general, these saturation estimates corresponded well to the measured groundwater levels.
We worked with a model that would be applicable for management decisions because of its fast calculation speed and rather low data requirements. We simultaneously calibrated the model to observed groundwater levels and discharge. The model was able to reproduce the general hydrological behavior of the catchment in terms of discharge and absolute groundwater levels. However, the the groundwater level predictions were not accurate enough to be used for the prediction of saturated areas. Groundwater level dynamics were not adequately reproduced and the predicted spatial saturation patterns did not correspond to those estimated from the soil map. Our results indicate that an accurate prediction of the groundwater level dynamics of the shallow groundwater in our catchment that is subject to artificial drainage would require a model that better represents processes at the boundary between the unsaturated and the saturated zone. However, data needed for such a more detailed model are not generally available. This severely hampers the practical use of such models despite their usefulness for scientific purposes.