Calibration of a semi-distributed hydrologic model for streamflow estimation along a river system

Newsha K. Ajami, Hoshin Gupta, Thorsten Wagener, Soroosh Sorooshian

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

222 Scopus citations


An important goal of spatially distributed hydrologic modeling is to provide estimates of streamflow (and river levels) at any point along the river system. To encourage collaborative research into appropriate levels of model complexity, the value of spatially distributed data, and methods suitable for model development and calibration, the US National Weather Service Hydrology Laboratory (NWSHL) is promoting the distributed modeling intercomparison project (DMIP). In particular, the project is interested in how spatially distributed estimates of precipitation provided by the next generation radar (NEXRAD) network, high resolution digital elevation models (DEM), soil, land-use and vegetation data can be integrated into an improved system for distributed hydrologic modeling that provides more accurate and informative flood forecasts. The goal of this study is to explore four questions: Can a semi-distributed approach improve the streamflow forecasts at the watershed outlet compared to a lumped approach? What is a suitable calibration strategy for a semi-distributed model structure, and how much improvement can be obtained? What is the minimum level of spatial complexity required, above which the improvement in forecast accuracy is marginal? What spatial details must be included to enable flow prediction at any point along the river network? The study compares lumped, semi-lumped and semi-distributed versions of the SAC-SMA (Sacramento Soil Moisture Accounting) model for the Illinois River basin at Watts (OK). A kinematic wave scheme is used to rout the flow along the river channel to the outlet. A Multi-step Automatic Calibration Scheme (MACS) using the Shuffled Complex Evolution (SCE-UA) optimization algorithm is applied for model calibration. The calibration results reveal that moving from a lumped model structure, driven by spatially averaged NEXRAD data over the entire basin, to a semi-distributed model structure, with forcing data averaged over each sub-basin while having identical parameters for all the sub-basins, improves the simulation results. However, varying the parameters between sub-basins does not further improve the simulation results, either at the outlet or at an interior testing point.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)112-135
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2004


  • Calibration
  • Distributed hydrologic modeling
  • Flow forecasting

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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