The Demonstration Test Catchments (DTC) project is a UK Government funded initiative to test the effectiveness of on-farm mitigation measures designed to reduce agricultural pollution without compromising farm productivity. Three distinct catchments in England have been chosen to test the efficacy of mitigation measures on working farms in small tributary sub-catchments equipped with continuous water quality monitoring stations. The Hampshire Avon in the south is a mixed livestock and arable farming catchment, the River Wensum in the east is a lowland catchment with predominantly arable farming and land use in the River Eden catchment in the north-west is predominantly livestock farming. One of the many strengths of the DTC as a national research platform is that it provides the ability to investigate catchment hydrology and biogeochemical response across different landscapes and geoclimatic characteristics, with a range of differing flow behaviours, geochemistries and nutrient chemistries.
Although numerous authors present studies of individual catchment responses to storms, no studies exist of multiple catchment responses to the same rainfall event captured with in situ high-resolution nutrient monitoring at a national scale. This paper brings together findings from all three DTC research groups to compare the response of the catchments to a major storm event in April 2012. This was one of the first weather fronts to track across the country following a prolonged drought period affecting much of the UK through 2011–2012, marking an unusual meteorological transition when a rapid shift from drought to flood risk occurred. The effects of the weather front on discharge and water chemistry parameters, including nitrogen species (NO3-N and NH4-N) and phosphorus fractions (total P (TP) and total reactive P (TRP)), measured at a half-hourly time step are examined.
When considered in the context of one hydrological year, flow and concentration duration curves reveal that the weather fronts resulted in extreme flow, nitrate and TP concentrations in all three catchments but with distinct differences in both hydrographs and chemographs. Hysteresis loops constructed from high resolution data are used to highlight an array of potential pollutant sources and delivery pathways. In the Hampshire Avon DTC, transport was dominated by sub-surface processes, where phosphorus, largely in the soluble form, was found to be transport-limited. In the Wensum DTC, transport was largely dominated by rapid sub-surface movement due to the presence of under-drainage, which mobilised large quantities of nitrate during the storm. In the Eden DTC, transport was found to be initially dominated by surface runoff, which switched to subsurface delivery on the falling limb of the hydrograph, with the surface delivery transporting large amounts of particulate phosphorus to the river, with a transport-limited response. The lack of exhaustion of nutrient delivery in response to such extreme flow generation indicates the size of the nutrient pools stored in these catchments, and highlights the scale of the challenges faced by environmental managers when designing mitigation measures to reduce the flux of nutrients to UK river systems from diffuse agricultural sources.