Comparing critical source areas for the sediment and nutrients of calibrated and uncalibrated models in a plateau watershed in southwest China

Chen, Meijun; Janssen, Annette B.G.; Klein, Jeroen J.M. de; Du, Xinzhong; Lei, Qiuliang; Li, Ying; Zhang, Tianpeng; Pei, Wei; Kroeze, Carolien; Liu, Hongbin


Controlling non-point source pollution is often difficult and costly. Therefore, focusing on areas that contribute the most, so-called critical source areas (CSAs), can have economic and ecological benefits. CSAs are often determined using a modelling approach, yet it has proved difficult to calibrate the models in regions with limited data availability. Since identifying CSAs is based on the relative contributions of sub-basins to the total load, it has been suggested that uncalibrated models could be used to identify CSAs to overcome data scarcity issues. Here, we use the SWAT model to study the extent to which an uncalibrated model can be applied to determine CSAs. We classify and rank sub-basins to identify CSAs for sediment, total nitrogen (TN), and total phosphorus (TP) in the Fengyu River Watershed (China) with and without model calibration. The results show high similarity (81%–93%) between the identified sediment and TP CSA number and locations before and after calibration both on the yearly and seasonal scale. For TN alone, the results show moderate similarity on the yearly scale (73%). This may be because, in our study area, TN is determined more by groundwater flow after calibration than by surface water flow. We conclude that CSA identification with the uncalibrated model for TP is always good because its CSA number and locations changed least, and for sediment, it is generally satisfactory. The use of the uncalibrated model for TN is acceptable, as its CSA locations did not change after calibration; however, the TN CSA number changed by over 60% compared to the figures before calibration on both yearly and seasonal scales. Therefore, we advise using an uncalibrated model to identify CSAs for TN only if water yield composition changes are expected to be limited. This study shows that CSAs can be identified based on relative loading estimates with uncalibrated models in data-deficient regions.