The influence of preferential flow on hillslope hydrology in a semi-arid watershed (in the Spanish Dehesas)

N.L.M.B. van Schaik*, S. Schnabel, V.G. Jetten

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

47 Citations (Scopus)


Preferential flow is known to influence hillslope hydrology in many areas around the world. Most research on preferential flow has been performed in temperate regions. Preferential infiltration has also been found in semi-arid regions, but its impact on the hydrology of these regions is poorly known. The aim of this study is to describe and quantify the influence of preferential flow on the hillslope hydrology from small scale (infiltration) to large scale (subsurface stormflow) in a semi-arid Dehesa landscape. Precipitation, soil moisture content, piezometric water level and discharge data were used to analyse the hydrological functioning of a catchment in Spain. Variability of soil moisture content during the transition from dry to wet season (September to November) within horizontal soil layers leads to the conclusion that there is preferential infiltration into the soils. When the rainfall intensity is high, a water level rapidly builds up in the piezometer pipes in the area, sometimes even reaching soil surface. This water level also drops back to bedrock within a few hours (under dry catchment conditions) to days (under wet catchment conditions). As the soil matrix is not necessarily wet while this water layer is built up, it is thought to be a transient water table in large connected pores which drain partly to the matrix, partly fill up bedrock irregularities and partly drain through subsurface flow to the channels. When the soil matrix becomes wetter the loss of water from macropores to the matrix and bedrock decreases and subsurface stormflow increases. It may be concluded that the hillslope hydrological system consists of a fine matrix domain and a macropore domain, which have their own flow characteristics but which also interact, depending on the soil matrix and macropore moisture contents. The macropore flow can result in subsurface flow, ranging from 13% contribution to total discharge for a large event of high intensity rainfall or high discharge to 80% of total discharge for a small event with low intensity rainfall or low discharge. During large events the fraction of subsurface stormflow in the discharge is suppressed by the large amount of surface runoff.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3844-3855
Number of pages12
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number18
Publication statusPublished - 30 Aug 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • Hillslope hydrology
  • Macropores
  • Preferential flow
  • Semi-arid
  • Soil moisture
  • Subsurface stormflow


Dive into the research topics of 'The influence of preferential flow on hillslope hydrology in a semi-arid watershed (in the Spanish Dehesas)'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this