The unique topography of the pothole region of the North American prairies creates challenges for properly determining basin contributing area. Numerous depressions or potholes within the landscape impound runoff. However, potholes can ‘fill-spill’ resulting in surface water connections between the potholes. Surface water connectivity between potholes ultimately influences basin contributing area. Currently, automated methods, such as landscape analysis tools, treat depressions in the landscape as artifacts and simply fill the depressions to delineate a drainage basin. Using this method to calculate contributing area assumes that all surface storage has been satisfied (threshold) and the drainage basin will contribute 100% of its area for all runoff events. However, most runoff events in the prairie pothole region are pre-threshold events that contribute only a portion of surface runoff to the outlet. These pre-threshold events have surface storage that varies because of antecedent water levels and have a variable or dynamic potential to store further runoff in the basin. Government agencies have developed methodologies for determining pre-threshold contributing areas, but these methodologies do not incorporate current technologies and, as a result, have limitations.
We propose an automated method for determining contributing area that incorporates the fill-spill of prairie potholes. The algorithm, which uses the D-8 drainage direction method, automates a methodology for identifying and quantifying runoff contributing area. Any algorithm that determines pre-threshold contributing area, must allow the DEM to be filled in an incremental manner. This will simulate increasing pond levels, and the resulting decrease in available storage in the basin, in response to runoff events. The SPILL algorithm is an iterative solution that increases the magnitude of input runoff events and records the decreasing change in available surface storage and the increase in contributing area until the storage threshold is reached and the contributing area reaches 100%. Through application of the algorithm on prairie pothole region basins, we test proposed conceptual curves that describe a hypothesized non-linear relationship between decreasing potential storage in the landscape and contributing area. Results indicate that the proposed conceptual curves represent the relationship between potential surface storage and contributing area in the test basins very well. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.