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12 - Watershed hydrology

from Part IV - Hydrometeorology


Chapter summary

The flow of water in streams and rivers is an important measure of the hydrologic cycle integrated over large areas. A watershed is the geographic area that contributes to water flow in a stream or river. Building upon concepts introduced in the previous chapter, this chapter introduces the study of watersheds. The overall hydrologic balance of a watershed is discussed, and three cases studies (Hubbard Brook, Coweeta, and Walker Branch) illustrate the hydrologic balance of watersheds. Surface runoff, or overland flow, is generated within a watershed when water reaching the ground exceeds the soil's capacity to gain water during infiltration (infiltration-excess) or when rain falls on saturated areas of the watershed (saturation-excess). The processes that generate runoff are reviewed and illustrated by numerical models of watershed hydrology. The spatial distribution of precipitation, spatial variability in infiltration capacity, antecedent soil moisture, and topography are important determinants of runoff at the watershed scale. Riverflow is an integrator of runoff, and the processes regulating riverflow, especially flooding, are discussed and illustrated. The chapter concludes with a discussion of global drainage basins and observed riverflow for major river systems. Comparison of simulated versus observed riverflow is an important means to test the hydrologic cycle of climate models.


The cycling of water depicted in Fig. 11.1 can be applied to particular geographic regions to calculate the water balance. One such area is a watershed or drainage basin.

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