Summer runoff generation in foothill catchments of the Colorado Front Range

Journal of Hydrology
By: , and 



Climatic shifts, disturbances, and land-use change can alter hydrologic flowpaths, water quality, and water supply to downstream communities. Prior research investigating streamflow generation processes in mountainous areas has largely focused on high-elevation alpine and subalpine catchments; less is known about these processes in lower-elevation foothills and montane catchments. In these lower-elevation ecoregions, precipitation shifts seasonally from snow to rain, which can result in differing seasonal flowpaths. We analyzed stream water for electrical conductivity, SiO2, Ca, Mg, Na, Cl, SO4, K, and dissolved organic carbon on both a weekly and storm event basis from April to August 2018 in three small (<10 km2) foothill catchments, and one larger (63.2 km2) catchment extending from the foothills to the subalpine ecoregions, in the Colorado Front Range. Using two end-member hydrograph separations and concentration-runoff relationships, we inferred the dominant catchment-scale flowpaths of precipitation to the streams. We selected catchments with varying land use to investigate the relationship between these characteristics and hydrologic flowpaths. We observed that concentrations of lithogenic constituents generally increased and dissolved organic carbon decreased as seasonal runoff decreased in the three foothill catchments, reflecting a transition from shallow subsurface flowpaths to deeper subsurface flowpaths. Elevated SO4 and Cl concentrations during low-flow periods in two of our catchments suggest that historical or current anthropogenic activities, such as mining, application of road salt, and/or near-stream septic systems, affect local stream and groundwater chemistry. In a foothill catchment with anthropogenic and geologic impervious surfaces, streamflow during storm responses was sourced from faster, surficial flowpaths compared to a less disturbed neighboring catchment, highlighting the influence of anthropogenic land-use on runoff generation. This study provides insight into the fundamental hydrology of foothill catchments and how they may function in the future with human development, precipitation shifts and disturbances.

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Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Summer runoff generation in foothill catchments of the Colorado Front Range
Series title Journal of Hydrology
DOI 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2020.125672
Volume 595
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) WMA - Earth System Processes Division
Description 125672, 13 p.
Country United States
State Colorado
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