Impairment of water quality by organic micropollutants such as pesticides, pharmaceuticals or household chemicals is a problem in many catchments worldwide. These chemicals originate from different urban and agricultural usages and are transferred to surface waters from point or diffuse sources by a number of transport pathways. The quantification of this form of pollution in streams is challenging and especially demanding for diffuse pollution due to the high spatio-temporal concentration dynamics, which require large sampling and analytical efforts to obtain representative data on the actual water quality.
Models can also be used to predict to what degree streams are affected by these pollutants. However, spatially distributed modelling of water quality is challenging for a number of reasons. Key issues are the lack of such models that incorporate both urban and agricultural sources of organic micropollutants, the large number of parameters to be estimated for many available water quality models, and the difficulty to transfer parameter estimates from calibration sites to areas where predictions are needed.
To overcome these difficulties, we used the parsimonious iWaQa model that simulates herbicide transport from agricultural fields and diffuse biocide losses from urban areas (mainly façades and roof materials) and tested its predictive capabilities in the Rhine River basin. The model only requires between one and eight global model parameters per compound that need to be calibrated. Most of the data requirements relate to spatially distributed land use and comprehensive time series of precipitation, air temperature and spatial data on discharge. For larger catchments, routing was explicitly considered by coupling the iWaQa to the AQUASIM model.
The model was calibrated with datasets from three different small catchments (0.5–24.6km2) for three agricultural herbicides (isoproturon, S-metolachlor, terbuthylazine) and two urban biocides (carbendazim, diuron). Subsequently, it was validated for herbicides and biocides in Switzerland for different years on 12 catchments of much larger size (31–35899km2) and for herbicides for the entire Rhine basin upstream of the Dutch–German border (160000km2) without any modification. For most compound–catchment combinations, the model predictions revealed a satisfactory correlation (median r2: 0.5) with the observations. The peak concentrations were mostly predicted within a factor of 2 to 4 (median: 2.1 fold difference for herbicides and 3.2 for biocides respectively). The seasonality of the peak concentration was also well simulated; the predictions of the actual timing of peak concentrations, however, was generally poor.
Limited spatio-temporal data, first on the use of the selected pesticides and second on their concentrations in the river network, restrict the possibilities to scrutinize model performance. Nevertheless, the results strongly suggest that input data and model structure are major sources of predictive uncertainty. The latter is for example seen in background concentrations that are systematically overestimated in certain regions, which is most probably linked to the modelled coupling of background concentrations to land use intensity.
Despite these limitations the findings indicate that key drivers and processes are reasonably well approximated by the model and that such a simple model that includes land use as a proxy for compound use, weather data for the timing of herbicide applications and discharge or precipitation as drivers for transport is sufficient to predict the timing and level of peak concentrations within a factor of 2 to 3 in a spatially distributed manner at the scale of large river basins.