An innovative soft water level sensor is proposed to characterize the hydrological behaviour of agricultural catchments by measuring rainfall and stream flows. This sensor works as a capacitor coupled with a capacitance to frequency converter and measures water level at an adjustable time step acquisition. It was designed to be handy, minimally invasive and optimized in terms of energy consumption and low-cost fabrication so as to multiply its use on several catchments under natural conditions. It was used as a stage recorder to measure water level dynamics in a channel during a runoff event and as a rain gauge to measure rainfall amount and intensity. Based on the Manning equation, a method allowed estimation of water discharge with a given uncertainty and hence runoff volume at an event or annual scale. The sensor was tested under controlled conditions in the laboratory and under real conditions in the field. Comparisons of the sensor to reference devices (tipping bucket rain gauge, hydrostatic pressure transmitter limnimeter, Venturi channels…) showed accurate results: rainfall intensities and dynamic responses were accurately reproduced and discharges were estimated with an uncertainty usually acceptable in hydrology. Hence, it was used to monitor eleven small agricultural catchments located in the Mediterranean region. Both catchment reactivity and water budget have been calculated. Dynamic response of the catchments has been studied at the event scale through the rising time determination and at the annual scale by calculating the frequency of occurrence of runoff events. It provided significant insight into catchment hydrological behaviour which could be useful for agricultural management perspectives involving pollutant transport, flooding event and global water balance.
Keywords: agricultural catchment behaviour; capacitance; sensor application; water stage recorder.