Identifying hydrologically sensitive areas: bridging the gap between science and application

J Environ Manage. 2006 Jan;78(1):63-76. doi: 10.1016/j.jenvman.2005.04.021. Epub 2005 Sep 19.


Researchers have noted that current water quality protection strategies, like nutrient management plans, lack a sound hydrological underpinning for pollutant transport processes. This is especially true for areas like the northeastern U.S. where copious research has shown that variable source area hydrology largely governs runoff generation. The goal of this study was to develop a scientifically justified method to identify the locations that generate overland flow. Furthermore, this methodology must be computationally simple enough that it can be utilized or incorporated into nutrient management plans and other established water quality tools. We specifically tested the reliability of the 'distance from a stream,'D(s), and the 'topographic index,'lambda, to predict areas with a high propensity for generating overland flow, i.e. hydrologically sensitive areas (HSA). HSAs were defined by their probability of generating runoff, P(sat), based on 30 year simulations using a physically based hydrological model. Using GIS, each location's P(sat) was correlated with D(s) and lambda. We used three Delaware Co., NY watersheds in the New York City watershed system with areas varying in size from 1.6 to 37 km2 and with forested and agricultural land uses. The topographic index gave stronger, more regionally consistent correlations with P(sat) than did D(s). Equations correlating lambda and P(sat) for each month are presented and can be used to estimate hydrological sensitivity in the region surrounding our study watersheds, i.e. in Delaware Co. This work is currently being incorporated into an Internet Mapping System to facilitate user-friendly, on-line identification of HSAs.

MeSH terms

  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Geological Phenomena
  • Geology
  • Internet
  • New York
  • Rivers*
  • Water Movements*
  • Water Pollution / prevention & control
  • Water Supply