Urban expansion and the scarcity of water supplies in arid and semiarid regions have increased the importance of urban runoff to localized water resources. However, urban catchment responses to precipitation are poorly understood in semiarid regions where intense rainfall often results in large runoff events during the short summer monsoon season. To evaluate how urban runoff quantity and quality respond to rainfall magnitude and timing, we collected stream stage data and runoff samples throughout the 2007 and 2008 summer monsoons from four ephemeral drainages in Tucson, Arizona. Antecedent rainfall explained 20% to 30% of discharge (mm) and runoff ratio in the least impervious (22%) catchment but was not statistically related to hydrologic responses at more impervious sites. Regression models indicated that rainfall depth, imperviousness and their combined effect control discharge and runoff ratios (p < 0.01, r2 = 0.91 and 0.75, respectively). In contrast, runoff quality did not vary with imperviousness or catchment size. Rainfall depth and duration, time since antecedent rainfall and event and cumulative discharge controlled runoff hydrochemistry and resulted in five specific solute response patterns: (i) strong event and seasonal solute mobilization (solute flush), (ii) event chemostasis and strong seasonal flush, (iii) event chemostasis and weak seasonal flush, (iv) event and seasonal chemostasis and (v) late seasonal flush. Our results indicate that hydrologic responses of semiarid catchments are controlled by rainfall partitioning at the event scale, whereas wetting magnitude, frequency and timing alter solute stores readily available for transport and control temporal runoff quality. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.