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Evaluating Impacts of Remote Sensing Soil Moisture Products on Water Quality Model Predictions in Mixed Land Use Basins

posted on 15.08.2019 by Garett William Pignotti

A critical consequence of agriculturally managed lands is the transport of nutrients and sediment to fresh water systems, which is ultimately responsible for a range of adverse impacts on human and environmental health. In the U.S. alone, over half of streams and rivers are classified as impaired, with agriculture as the primary contributor. To address deterioration of water quality, there is a need for reliable tools and mathematical models to monitor and predict impacts to water quantity and quality. Soil water content is a key variable in representing environmental systems, linking and driving hydrologic, climate, and biogeochemical cycles; however, the influence of soil water simulations on model predictions is not well characterized, particularly for water quality. Moreover, while soil moisture estimation is the focus of multiple remote sensing missions, defining its potential for use in water quality models remains an open question. The goal of this research is to test whether updating model soil water process representation or model soil water estimates can provide better overall predictive confidence in estimates of both soil moisture and water quality. A widely-used ecohydrologic model, the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT), was used to evaluate four objectives: 1) investigate the potential of a gridded version of the SWAT model for use with similarly gridded, remote sensing data products, 2) determine the sensitivity of model predictions to changes in soil water content, 3) implement and test a more physically representative soil water percolation algorithm, and 4) perform practical data assimilation experiments using remote sensing data products, focusing on the effects of soil water updates on water quality predictions. With the exception of the first objective, model source code was modified to investigate the relative influence and effect of soil water on overall model predictions. Results suggested that use of the SWAT grid model was currently not viable given practical computational constraints. While the advantages provided by the gridded approach are likely useful for small scale watersheds (< 500 km2), the spatial resolution necessary to run the simulation was too coarse, such that many of the benefits of the gridded approach are negated. Sensitivity tests demonstrated a strong response of model predictions to perturbations in soil moisture. Effects were highly process dependent, where water quality was particularly sensitive to changes in both transport and transformation processes. Model response was reliant upon a default thresholding behavior that restricts subsurface flow and redistribution processes below field capacity. An alternative approach that removed this threshold and keyed processes to relative saturation showed improvement by allowing a more realistic range of soil moisture and a reduction of flushing behavior. This approach was further extended to test against baseline satellite data assimilation experiments; however, did not conclusively outperform the original model simulations. Nevertheless, overall, data assimilation experiments using a remote sensing surface soil moisture data product from the NASA Soil Moisture Active/Passive (SMAP) mission were able to correct for a dry bias in the model simulations and reduce error. Data assimilation updates significantly impacted flow predictions, generally by increasing the dominant contributing flow process. This led to substantial differences between two test sites, where landscape and seasonal characteristics moderated the impact of data assimilation updates to hydrologic, water quality, and crop yield predictions. While the findings illustrate the potential to improve predictions, continued future efforts to refine soil water process representation and optimize data assimilation with longer time series are needed. The dependence of ecohydrologic model predictions on soil moisture highlighted by this research underscores the importance and challenge of effectively representing a complex, physically-based process. As essential decision support systems rely on modeling analyses, improving prediction accuracy is vital.


Degree Type

Doctor of Philosophy


Ecological Sciences and Engineering

Campus location

West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Melba Crawford

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee co-chair

Indrajeet Chaubey

Additional Committee Member 2

Keith Cherkauer

Additional Committee Member 3

Venkatesh Merwade