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GEOG415 Lecture 9A: Drainage Basins

Drainage basin (watershed, catchment)
- Drains surface water to a common outlet
Drainage divide - how is it defined?
Scale effects?

- Represents a hydrologic cycle

- Open system

“Watershed hydrology”

e.g. logging impacts

Dunne and Leopold (1978, Fig. 14-1)


Typical requirement for a watershed-hydrology project

- Stream gauging station at the outlet

Hydrologic response unit

Collection of areas having similar
response to rain, snow, etc.
What controls the response?

Scales: current challenge in hydrology

Hydrological process studies are conducted at scales of 1-
100 m. How do we integrate this information into a model of
watershed (1-10 km)? → up-scaling

Outputs of global climate models are given at scales of

several hundred kilometers. How do we feed this information
into a watershed model? → down-scaling

Drainage-basin form
Basin form and channel patterns affect the hydrologic response
of the basin.

Palmate channel
network (Fig. 14a and b)
Stream discharge gradually
increases downstream.

Pinnate channel network

(Fig. 14c)
Stream discharge suddenly
increases at point C.
Dunne and Leopold (1978, Fig. 14-2)

Basin size and discharge

Average basin discharge (flow rate) is proportional to basin
area, if the topography, geology, and climate are the same.

Stream orders
How do we classify the rivers from a hydrological view point?
e.g. Bow River vs Nose Creek

This diagram shows stream

orders according to the
Strahler system.
How does it work?

Dunne and Leopold (1978, Fig. 14-4)

Scale effects
Order of a particular stream assigned on a 1:25,000 map sheet
and on a 1:250,000 map sheet. Are they same or different?

“Zero-th” order channels

They do not show on map sheets as water courses, but
becomes channels during storms. Importance?

Drainage density
= Total channel length (km) / Basin area
(km ) How does this affect the hydrologic

What controls drainage density?

Scale effects?

Area Channel length Drainage Density

2 -2
(km ) (km) (km km )
Fig. 14-2(a) 3.4 11.1 3.27
Fig. 14-2(b) 32.6 99.8 3.06
Fig. 14-2(c) 245.2 121.9 2.01

Relief ratio
= elevation difference, highest - lowest length of
the basin, parallel to the main stream
Relief ratio indicates the average slope of the basin.

Blackstone Creek and Jean-Marie Creek, NWT

Drain. Dens. Relief Ratio

discharge / basin area (mm/d)

Blackstone 0.524 km km 0.0055
3 -2
Jean-Marie 0.237 km km 0.0034

4/1 5/1 6/1 7/1 8/1 9/1 10/1 11/1 12/1

Why is blackstone hydrograph more peaky?

Why does Jean-Marie has a slower response?

GEOG415 Lecture 9B: Water Balance

Water balance of a drainage basin

∆SM + ∆GWS = P - I - AET - OF - GWR
∆SM: soil moisture storage change
∆GWS: groundwater storage change
P: precipitation I: interception
AET: evapotranspiration OF: Overland flow
GWR: groundwater runoff → baseflow

Dunne and Leopold (1978, Fig. 8-1)

Water-balance evaluation provides essential information for:


Some parameters are relatively easy to measure.

Others are almost impossible to measure.

Hydrologic models are commonly used to estimate water

balance. Dunne and Leopold (1978, p.239-244) presents
an example using a “double-tank” model.
Model inputs are precipitation (P) and
potential evaporation (PET), and available
water capacity (AWC) of the soil.
Actual evaporation (AET) is calculated
from PET and AWC. When P > PET, AET SM
is assumed equal to PET. Rationales?
Moisture surplus (S) occurs when P - AET Detention
exceeds the amount required to fill up the
upper tank. Half of moisture surplus is
detained in the lower tank, and the rest is RO
drained as runoff (RO). Rationales?

Difference between PET and AET (soil moisture deficit) is

an indicator of the stress on plants and crops.

Results of model simulation (DL, Table 8-1)

300 Model
P, PET (mm/month) 200


moisture deficit (mm) soil moisture (mm)





runoff (mm)


Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Jan

This model is a useful tool for demonstrating effects of

climate. However, it is too crude for accurately simulating
the water balance of a specific site.
Hydrologic models all have usefulness and limitation.

Model calibration
To be used as quantitative tools, models need to be calibrated.
What is calibration?
How is it done?
stream discharge (m3/s)

model simulation

actual observation

time (day)

Lumped hydrologic model

The hydrologic model described above is called a ‘lumped’
model, which integrates all hydrological processes in the
basin in a ‘black box’. The calibrated model may produce
sufficiently accurate results for practical purposes, but offers
little insight into physical processes.
- Transferability
- Landuse change
- Spatial variability

Distributed hydrologic model

- A basin is divided into a number of grid cells.
→ spatial information represented by GIS
- Different types of geology, topography, vegetation, etc.
within a basin → explicitly represented in the model.
- Remote sensing techniques for parameter estimation.
- Lateral transfer of water between grid cells.
- Physically-based calculation of evaporation and runoff.
→ energy balance for evaporation
Darcy’s law for infiltration

With all these improvements, distributed hydrologic

models are far from being reliable tools. Challenges are:
- misrepresentation of physical processes (simply wrong!)
- large uncertainties of parameters (soils, vegetation, etc.)
- scaling issues
- lack of data to calibrate the models against.