Quantifying pollutant spreading and the risk of water pollution in hydrological catchments : A solute travel time-based scenario approach

Abstract: The research presented in the thesis develops an approach for the estimation and mapping of pollutant spreading in catchments and the associated uncertainty and risk of pollution. The first step in the approach is the quantification and mapping of statistical and geographical distributions of advective solute travel times from pollutant input locations to downstream recipients. In the second step the travel time distributions are used to quantify and map the spreading of specific pollutants and the related risk of water pollution. In both steps, random variability of transport properties and processes is accounted for within a probabilistic framework, while different scenarios are used to account for statistically unquantifiable uncertainty about system characteristics, processes and future developments. This scenario approach enables a transparent analysis of uncertainty effects that is relatively easy to interpret. It also helps identify conservative assumptions and pollutant situations for which further investigations are most needed in order to reduce the uncertainty. The results for different investigated scenarios can further be used to assess the total risk to exceed given water quality standards downstream of pollutant sources. Specific thesis results show that underestimation of pollutant transport variability, and in particular of those transport pathways with much shorter than average travel times, may lead to substantial underestimation of pollutant spreading in catchment areas. By contrast, variations in pollutant attenuation rate generally lead to lower estimated spreading than do constant attenuation conditions. A scenario of constant attenuation rate and high travel time variability, with a large fraction of relatively short travel times, therefore appears to be a reasonable conservative scenario to use when information is lacking for more precise determination of actual transport and attenuation conditions.