Because it commonly generates high-speed, high-volume flow with minimal exposure to solid earth materials, preferential flow in the unsaturated zone is a dominant influence in many problems of infiltration, recharge, contaminant transport, and ecohydrology. By definition, preferential flow occurs in a portion of a medium – that is, a preferred part, whether a pathway, pore, or macroscopic subvolume. There are many possible classification schemes, but usual consideration of preferential flow includes macropore or fracture flow, funneled flow determined by macroscale heterogeneities, and fingered flow determined by hydraulic instability rather than intrinsic heterogeneity. That preferential flow is spatially concentrated associates it with other characteristics that are typical, although not defining: it tends to be unusually fast, to transport high fluxes, and to occur with hydraulic disequilibrium within the medium. It also has a tendency to occur in association with large conduits and high water content, although these are less universal than is commonly assumed. Predictive unsaturated-zone flow models in common use employ several different criteria for when and where preferential flow occurs, almost always requiring a nearly saturated medium. A threshold to be exceeded may be specified in terms of the following (i) water content; (ii) matric potential, typically a value high enough to cause capillary filling in a macropore of minimum size; (iii) infiltration capacity or other indication of incipient surface ponding; or (iv) other conditions related to total filling of certain pores. Yet preferential flow does occur without meeting these criteria. My purpose in this commentary is to point out important exceptions and implications of ignoring them. Some of these pertain mainly to macropore flow, others to fingered or funneled flow, and others to combined or undifferentiated flow modes.
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Preferential flow occurs in unsaturated conditions