Optimal hydrograph separation using a recursive digital filter constrained by chemical mass balance, with application to selected Chesapeake Bay watersheds

Scientific Investigations Report 2017-5034

National Water Quality Program
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  • Document: Report (2.17 MB pdf)
  • Data Release: USGS data release - Hydrograph-separation results for 225 streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed derived by using PART, HYSEP (Fixed, Local minimum, Slide), BFI, and a Recursive Digital Filter with streamflow data ranging from 1913 through 2016
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Quantitative estimates of base flow are necessary to address questions concerning the vulnerability and response of the Nation’s water supply to natural and human-induced change in environmental conditions. An objective of the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment Project is to determine how hydrologic systems are affected by watershed characteristics, including land use, land cover, water use, climate, and natural characteristics (geology, soil type, and topography). An important component of any hydrologic system is base flow, generally described as the part of streamflow that is sustained between precipitation events, fed to stream channels by delayed (usually subsurface) pathways, and more specifically as the volumetric discharge of water, estimated at a measurement site or gage at the watershed scale, which represents groundwater that discharges directly or indirectly to stream reaches and is then routed to the measurement point.

Hydrograph separation using a recursive digital filter was applied to 225 sites in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The recursive digital filter was chosen for the following reasons: it is based in part on the assumption that groundwater acts as a linear reservoir, and so has a physical basis; it has only two adjustable parameters (alpha, obtained directly from recession analysis, and beta, the maximum value of the base-flow index that can be modeled by the filter), which can be determined objectively and with the same physical basis of groundwater reservoir linearity, or that can be optimized by applying a chemical-mass-balance constraint. Base-flow estimates from the recursive digital filter were compared with those from five other hydrograph-separation methods with respect to two metrics: the long-term average fraction of streamflow that is base flow, or base-flow index, and the fraction of days where streamflow is entirely base flow. There was generally good correlation between the methods, with some biased slightly high and some biased slightly low compared to the recursive digital filter. There were notable differences between the days at base flow estimated by the different methods, with the recursive digital filter having a smaller range of values. This was attributed to how the different methods determine cessation of quickflow (the part of streamflow which is not base flow).

For 109 Chesapeake Bay watershed sites with available specific conductance data, the parameters of the filter were optimized using a chemical-mass-balance constraint and two different models for the time-dependence of base-flow specific conductance. Sixty-seven models were deemed acceptable and the results compared well with non-optimized results. There are a number of limitations to the optimal hydrograph-separation approach resulting from the assumptions implicit in the conceptual model, the mathematical model, and the approach taken to impose chemical mass balance (including tracer choice). These limitations may be evidenced by poor model results; conversely, poor model fit may provide an indication that two-component separation does not adequately describe the hydrologic system’s runoff response.

The results of this study may be used to address a number of questions regarding the role of groundwater in understanding past changes in stream-water quality and forecasting possible future changes, such as the timing and magnitude of land-use and management practice effects on stream and groundwater quality. Ongoing and future modeling efforts may benefit from the estimates of base flow as calibration targets or as a means to filter chemical data to model base-flow loads and trends. Ultimately, base-flow estimation might provide the basis for future work aimed at improving the ability to quantify groundwater discharge, not only at the scale of a gaged watershed, but at the scale of individual reaches as well.

Suggested Citation

Raffensperger, J.P., Baker, A.C., Blomquist, J.D., and Hopple, J.A., 2017, Optimal hydrograph separation using a recursive digital filter constrained by chemical mass balance, with application to selected Chesapeake Bay watersheds: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2017–5034, 51 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

ISSN: 2328-031X (print)

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Hydrograph-Separation Methods
  • Application to Chesapeake Bay Watershed
  • Limitations of Hydrograph Separation
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Optimal hydrograph separation using a recursive digital filter constrained by chemical mass balance, with application to selected Chesapeake Bay watersheds
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Maryland Water Science Center
Report: vii, 51 p.; Data Release
Online Only (Y/N):
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