Estimating source regions for snowmelt runoff in a Rocky Mountain basin: tests of a data-based conceptual modeling approach



In many mountain basins, river discharge measurements are located far away from runoff source areas. This study tests whether a basic snowmelt runoff conceptual model can be used to estimate relative contributions of different elevation zones to basin-scale discharge in the Cache la Poudre, a snowmelt-dominated Rocky Mountain river. Model tests evaluate scenarios that vary model configuration, input variables, and parameter values to determine how these factors affect discharge simulation and the distribution of runoff generation with elevation. Results show that the model simulates basin discharge well (NSCE and R >0.90) when input precipitation and temperature are distributed with different lapse rates, with a rain-snow threshold parameter between 0 and 3.3 °C, and with a melt rate parameter between 2 and 4 mm °C−1 d−1 because these variables and parameters can have compensating interactions with each other and with the runoff coefficient parameter. Only the hydrograph recession parameter can be uniquely defined with this model structure. These non-unique model scenarios with different configurations, input variables, and parameter values all indicate that the majority of basin discharge comes from elevations above 2900 m, or less than 25% of the basin total area, with a steep increase in runoff generation above 2600 m. However, the simulations produce unrealistically low runoff ratios for elevations above 3000 m, highlighting the need for additional measurements of snow and discharge at under-sampled elevations to evaluate the accuracy of simulated snow and runoff patterns. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.