Watershed model parameter estimation in low data environments


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Study region: Three watersheds in the Lake Champlain Basin of Vermont, USA. Study focus: Watershed models are essential for evaluating the impact of watershed management; however, they contain many parameters that are not directly measurable. These parameters are commonly estimated by calibration against observed data, often streamflow. Unfortunately, many areas lack long-term streamflow records, making parameter estimation in low data environments (LDE) challenging. A new calibration technique, simultaneous multi-basin calibration (MBC), was developed to estimate model parameters in LDE. Three Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) model initializations for USGS gages with ~ 2-year records in the Lake Champlain Basin of Vermont, USA, were evaluated by comparing MBC and the commonly used similarity-based regionalization (SBR) approach, where calibrated parameters from a watershed with an extended data record are transferred to the LDE receptor watersheds. In MBC, each watershed is initialized, and observed flows from each initialization are aggregated to generate a combined streamflow record of sufficient length to calibrate using a differential evolution algorithm. New hydrological insights for the region: Using this new MBC method, we demonstrate improved model performance and more realistic model parameter values. This study demonstrates that short periods of hydrological measurement from multiple locations in a basin can represent a system similarly to long term measurements and that even short records taken at multiple locations significantly improve our hydrologic knowledge of a system as compared to relying on the similarity of a basin with a long record of flow. In addition, this study revealed that the hydrologic response is mediated by the interplay of very low soil-saturated hydraulic conductivity (Ksat) and cracking soils. As a result, even if Ksat is very low, cracking clays have a large impact on runoff production Garna et al. (2022).