Runoff generation in mountain catchments: long-term hydrological monitoring in the Rio Vauz Catchment, Italy

G. Zuecco, D. Penna, M. Borga


Trying to obtain a more detailed understanding of the hydrological functioning of mountain catchments represents an important challenge in the effort of counteracting possible consequences of climate and land use change on water resources availability. Long-term (> 10 years) hydro-meteorological monitoring in small (typically < 10 km2) experimental catchments constitutes a valuable tool to achieve these goal. One of these sites is the Rio Vauz Catchment (1.9 km2), in the Italian Dolomites, that represents an excellent example of long-term snowmelt-dominated catchment in Dolomitic regions. The strong elevation gradient of the Rio Vauz Catchment and the different physiographic properties of its nested subcatchments make this a unique site for investigating fundamental runoff generation mechanisms in mountain headwaters. In this work, we provide a review of physical processes that have been inferred from 12 years of hydrological monitoring in this catchment. We present the available dataset and summarize the main hydrological mechanisms that explain the internal functioning of the Rio Vauz Catchment, primarily focusing on three characterizing hydrological behaviours, namely thresholds, hysteresis and connectivity. The main control on surface and subsurface runoff threshold response is constituted by a combination of soil moisture antecedent conditions, rainfall amount and topography. Changes in hysteresis patterns (clockwise and anti-clockwise loops) between streamflow and soil moisture, water table depth and electrical conductivity were governed by distinct runoff generation processes and rainfall event characteristics. Hillslope-riparian-stream subsurface connectivity was controlled by antecedent wetness conditions and rainfall amount. The composition in environmental tracers (stable isotopes of water and electrical conductivity) in different water sources and the application of tracer-based mixing models helped to distinguish the geographical sources to runoff and to quantify the role of rainfall and snowmelt in streamflow. Finally, we define a perceptual model of runoff generation processes for dry and wet conditions that can be considered representative for many mountain headwater catchments in the world.


mountain headwater catchment; long-term monitoring; runoff generation processes; tracers; hydrological functioning

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