Articles | Volume 4, issue 1
Research article
02 Mar 2015
Research article |  | 02 Mar 2015

A new instrument to measure plot-scale runoff

R. D. Stewart, Z. Liu, D. E. Rupp, C. W. Higgins, and J. S. Selker

Abstract. Accurate measurement of the amount and timing of surface runoff at multiple scales is needed to understand fundamental hydrological processes. At the plot scale (i.e., length scales on the order of 1–10 m) current methods for direct measurement of runoff either store the water in a collection vessel, which is not conducive to long-term monitoring studies, or utilize expensive installations such as large-scale tipping buckets or flume/weir systems. We developed an alternative low-cost, robust and reliable instrument to measure runoff that we call the "Upwelling Bernoulli Tube" (UBeTube). The UBeTube instrument is a pipe with a slot machined in its side that is installed vertically at the base of a runoff collection system. The flow rate through the slot is inferred by measuring the water height within the pipe. The geometry of the slot can be modified to suit the range of flow rates expected for a given site; we demonstrate a slot geometry that is capable of measuring flow rates across more than 3 orders of magnitude (up to 300 L min−1) while requiring only 30 cm of hydraulic head. System accuracy is dependent on both the geometry of the slot and the accuracy of the water level measurements. Using a pressure sensor with ±7 mm accuracy, the mean theoretical error for the demonstrated slot geometry was ~17% (ranging from errors of more than 50% at low flow rates to less than 2% at high flow rates), while the observed error during validation was 1–25%. A simple correction factor reduced this mean error to 0–14%, and further reductions in error could be achieved through the use of taller, narrower slot dimensions (which requires greater head gradients to drive flow) or through more accurate water level measurements. The UBeTube device has been successfully employed in a long-term rainfall-runoff study, demonstrating the ability of the instrument to measure surface runoff across a range of flows and conditions.

Short summary
We present a new instrument for measuring surface runoff rates ranging from very low (~0.05L min-1) to high (300L min-1, with much higher rates possible depending on the device configuration). The device is economical, simple, rugged, accurate and requires little maintenance (the system is self-emptying and contains no moving parts). We have successfully used this instrument in long-term monitoring studies and expect that it will appeal to other scientists studying runoff processes.