Simulation of streamflow and water quality in the White Clay Creek subbasin of the Christina River Basin, Pennsylvania and Delaware, 1994-98

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003-4031

Prepared in cooperation with the Delaware River Basin Commission, Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection
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The Christina River Basin drains 565 square miles (mi2) in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware. Water from the basin is used for recreation, drinking water supply, and to support aquatic life. The Christina River Basin includes the major subbasins of Brandywine Creek, White Clay Creek, and Red Clay Creek. The White Clay Creek is the second largest of the subbasins and drains an area of 108 mi2. Water quality in some parts of the Christina River Basin is impaired and does not support designated uses of the streams. A multi-agency water-quality management strategy included a modeling component to evaluate the effects of point and nonpoint-source contributions of nutrients and suspended sediment on stream water quality. To assist in non point-source evaluation, four independent models, one for each of the three major subbasins and for the Christina River, were developed and calibrated using the model code Hydrological Simulation Program—Fortran (HSPF). Water-quality data for model calibration were collected in each of the four main subbasins and in smaller subbasins predominantly covered by one land use following a nonpoint-source monitoring plan. Under this plan, stormflow and base- flow samples were collected during 1998 at two sites in the White Clay Creek subbasin and at nine sites in the other subbasins.

The HSPF model for the White Clay Creek Basin simulates streamflow, suspended sediment, and the nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus. In addition, the model simulates water temperature, dissolved oxygen, biochemical oxygen demand, and plankton as secondary objectives needed to support the sediment and nutrient simulations. For the model, the basin was subdivided into 17 reaches draining areas that ranged from 1.37 to 13 mi2. Ten different pervious land uses and two impervious land uses were selected for simulation. Land-use areas were determined from 1995 land-use data. The predominant land uses in the White Clay Creek Basin are agricultural, forested, residential, and urban.

The hydrologic component of the model was run at an hourly time step and primarily calibrated using streamflow data from two U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) streamflow-measurement stations for the period of October 1, 1994, through October 29, 1998. Additional calibration was done using data from two other USGS streamflow-measurement stations with periods of record shorter than the calibration period. Daily precipitation data from two National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) gages and hourly precipitation and other meteorological data for one NOAA gage were used for model input. The difference between simulated and observed streamflow volume ranged from -0.9 to 1.8 percent for the 4-year period at the two calibration sites with 4-year records. Annual differences between observed and simulated streamflow generally were greater than the overall error. For example, at a site near the bottom of the basin (drainage area of 89.1 mi2), annual differences between observed and simulated streamflow ranged from -5.8 to 14.4 percent and the overall error for the 4-year period was -0.9 percent. Calibration errors for 36 storm periods at the two calibration sites for total volume, low-flowrecession rate, 50-percent lowest flows, 10-percent highest flows, and storm peaks were within the recommended criteria of 20 percent or less. Much of the error in simulating storm events on an hourly time step can be attributed to uncertainty in the hourly rainfall data.

The water-quality component of the model was calibrated using data collected by the USGS and state agencies at three USGS streamflow-measurement stations with variable water-quality monitoring periods ending October 1998. Because of availability, monitoring data for suspended-solids concentrations were used as surrogates for suspended-sediment concentrations, although suspended solids may underestimate suspended sediment and affect apparent accuracy of the suspended-sediment simulation. Comparison of observed to simulated loads for up to five storms in 1998 at each of the two nonpoint-source monitoring sites in the White Clay Creek Basin indicate that simulation error is commonly as large as an order of magnitude for suspended sediment and nutrients. The simulation error tends to be smaller for dissolved nutrients than for particulate nutrients. Errors of 40 percent or less for monthly or annual values indicate a fair to good water-quality calibration according to recommended criteria, with much larger errors possible for individual events. The accuracy of the water-quality calibration under stormflow conditions is limited by the relatively small amount of water-quality data available for the White Clay Creek Basin.

Users of the White Clay Creek HSPF model should be aware of model limitations and consider the following if the model is used for predictive purposes: streamflow and water quality for individual storm events may not be well simulated, but the model performance is reasonable when evaluated over longer periods of time; the observed flow-duration curve for the simulation period is similar to the long-term flow-duration curve at White Clay Creek near Newark, Del., indicating that the calibration period is representative of all but highest 0.1 percent and lowest 0.1 percent of flows at that site; relative errors in streamflow and water-quality simulations are greater for smaller drainage areas than for larger areas; and calibration for water-quality was based on sparse data.

Suggested Citation

Senior, L.A., and Koerkle, E.H., 2003, Simulation of streamflow and water quality in the White Clay Creek subbasin of the Christina River Basin, Pennsylvania and Delaware, 1994-98: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003–4031, 142 p.,

Table of Contents

  • Abstract 
  • Introduction
  • Description of study area
  • Description of model 
  • Data for model input and calibration
  • Simulation of streamflow
  • Simulation of water quality
  • Model applications
  • Summary and conclusions
  • References cited
  • Appendix 1—Stormflow and base-flow water-quality data
  • Appendix 2—Simulated stormflow and water quality for sampled  storms in 1998
  • Appendix 3—User control input (UCI) file for HSPF model of White Clay Creek Basin

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Simulation of streamflow and water quality in the White Clay Creek subbasin of the Christina River Basin, Pennsylvania and Delaware, 1994-98
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Pennsylvania Water Science Center
x, 142 p.
Online Only (Y/N):