• Switzerland;
  • catchment;
  • climate;
  • drought;
  • evapotranspiration;
  • lysimeter

[1] The prealpine Rietholzbach research catchment provides long-term continuous hydroclimatological measurements in northeastern Switzerland, including lysimeter evapotranspiration measurements since 1976, and soil moisture measurements since 1994. We analyze here the monthly data record over 32 years (1976–2007), with a focus on the extreme 2003 European drought. In particular, we assess whether the well-established hypothesis that the 2003 event was due to spring precipitation deficits is valid at the site. The Rietholzbach measurements are found to be internally consistent and representative for a larger region in Switzerland. Despite the scale discrepancy (3.14 m2 versus 3.31 km2), the lysimeter seepage and catchment-wide streamflow show similar monthly dynamics. High correlations are further found with other streamflow measurements within the Thur river basin (1750 km2) and—for interannual anomalies—also in most of northern Switzerland. Analyses for 2003 confirm the occurrence of extreme heat and drought conditions at Rietholzbach. However, unlike findings from regional-scale modeling studies, they reveal a late onset of the soil moisture deficit (from June onward), despite large precipitation deficits from mid-February to mid-April. These early spring deficits were mostly compensated for by decreased runoff during this period and excess precipitation in the preceding weeks to months (including in the 2002 fall). Our results show that evapotranspiration excess in June 2003 was the main driver initiating the 2003 summer drought conditions in Rietholzbach, contributing 60% of the June 2003 water storage deficit. Finally, long-lasting drought effects on the lysimeter water storage due to rewetting inhibition were recorded until spring 2004.