Predicting phosphorus dynamics in complex terrains using a variable source area hydrology model

Amy S. Collick, Daniel R. Fuka, Peter J.A. Kleinman, Anthony R. Buda, Jennifer L. Weld, Mike J. White, Tamie L. Veith, Ray B. Bryant, Carl H. Bolster, Zachary M. Easton

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

59 Scopus citations


Phosphorus (P) loss from agricultural watersheds has long been a critical water quality problem, the control of which has been the focus of considerable research and investment. Preventing P loss depends on accurately representing the hydrological and chemical processes governing P mobilization and transport. The Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) is a watershed model commonly used to predict run-off and non-point source pollution transport. SWAT simulates run-off employing either the curve number (CN) or the Green and Ampt methods, both assume infiltration-excess run-off, although shallow soils underlain by a restricting layer commonly generate saturation-excess run-off from variable source areas (VSA). In this study, we compared traditional SWAT with a re-conceptualized version, SWAT-VSA, that represents VSA hydrology, in a complex agricultural watershed in east central Pennsylvania. The objectives of this research were to provide further evidence of SWAT-VSA's integrated and distributed predictive capabilities against measured surface run-off and stream P loads and to highlight the model's ability to drive sub-field management of P. Thus, we relied on a detailed field management database to parameterize the models. SWAT and SWAT-VSA predicted discharge similarly well (daily Nash-Sutcliffe efficiencies of 0.61 and 0.66, respectively), but SWAT-VSA outperformed SWAT in predicting P export from the watershed. SWAT estimated lower P loss (0.0-0.25kgha-1) from agricultural fields than SWAT-VSA (0.0-1.0+ kgha-1), which also identified critical source areas - those areas generating large run-off and P losses at the sub-field level. These results support the use of SWAT-VSA in predicting watershed-scale P losses and identifying critical source areas of P loss in landscapes with VSA hydrology.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)588-601
Number of pages14
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number4
StatePublished - Feb 15 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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