Recharge is a vital component of the ground-water budget and methods for estimating it range from extremely complex to relatively simple. The most commonly used techniques, however, are limited by the scale of application. One method that can be used to estimate ground-water recharge includes process-based models that compute distributed water budgets on a watershed scale. These models should be evaluated to determine which model parameters are the dominant controls in determining ground-water recharge.
Seven existing watershed models from different humid regions of the United States were chosen to analyze the sensitivity of simulated recharge to model parameters. Parameter sensitivities were determined using a nonlinear regression computer program to generate a suite of diagnostic statistics. The statistics identify model parameters that have the greatest effect on simulated ground-water recharge and that compare and contrast the hydrologic system responses to those parameters.
Simulated recharge in the Lost River and Big Creek watersheds in Washington State was sensitive to small changes in air temperature. The Hamden watershed model in west-central Minnesota was developed to investigate the relations that wetlands and other landscape features have with runoff processes. Excess soil moisture in the Hamden watershed simulation was preferentially routed to wetlands, instead of to the ground-water system, resulting in little sensitivity of any parameters to recharge. Simulated recharge in the North Fork Pheasant Branch watershed, Wisconsin, demonstrated the greatest sensitivity to parameters related to evapotranspiration. Three watersheds were simulated as part of the Model Parameter Estimation Experiment (MOPEX). Parameter sensitivities for the MOPEX watersheds, Amite River, Louisiana and Mississippi, English River, Iowa, and South Branch Potomac River, West Virginia, were similar and most sensitive to small changes in air temperature and a user-defined flow routing parameter.
Although the primary objective of this study was to identify, by geographic region, the importance of the parameter value to the simulation of ground-water recharge, the secondary objectives proved valuable for future modeling efforts. The value of a rigorous sensitivity analysis can (1) make the calibration process more efficient, (2) guide additional data collection, (3) identify model limitations, and (4) explain simulated results.