Simulated Soil Water Storage Effects on Streamflow Generation in a Mountainous Snowmelt Environment, Idaho, USA

Document Type


Publication Date



Although soil processes affect the timing and amount of streamflow generated from snowmelt, they are often overlooked in estimations of snowmelt-generated streamflow in the western USA. The use of a soil water balance modelling approach to incorporate the effects of soil processes, in particular soil water storage, on the timing and amount of snowmelt generated streamflow, was investigated. The study was conducted in the Reynolds Mountain East (RME) watershed, a 38 ha, snowmelt-dominated watershed in southwest Idaho. Snowmelt or rainfall inputs to the soil were determined using a well established snow accumulation and melt model (Isnobal). The soil water balance model was first evaluated at a point scale, using periodic soil water content measurements made over two years at 14 sites. In general, the simulated soil water profiles were in agreement with measurements (P < 0·05) as further indicated by high R2 values (mostly > 0·85), y-intercept values near 0, slopes near 1 and low average differences between measured and modelled values. In addition, observed soil water dynamics were generally consistent with critical model assumptions. Spatially distributed simulations over the watershed for the same two years indicate that streamflow initiation and cessation are closely linked to the overall watershed soil water storage capacity, which acts as a threshold. When soil water storage was below the threshold, streamflow was insensitive to snowmelt inputs, but once the threshold was crossed, the streamflow response was very rapid. At these times there was a relatively high degree of spatial continuity of satiated soils within the watershed. Incorporation of soil water storage effects may improve estimation of the timing and amount of streamflow generated from mountainous watersheds dominated by snowmelt.