Surface Runoff and the Water Cycle

Science Center Objects

Runoff is nothing more than water "running off" the land surface. Just as the water you wash your car with runs off down the driveway as you work, the rain that Mother Nature covers the landscape with runs off downhill, too (due to gravity). Runoff is an important component of the natural water cycle.

Note: This section of the Water Science School discusses the Earth's "natural" water cycle without human interference.

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Surface runoff is precipitation runoff over the landscape

Atlanta, Georgia: Impervious areas affect rainfall runoff, flooding, and water quality

Impervious areas cause excessive runoff.

In our section about water storage in the oceans we describe how the oceans act as a large storehouse of water that evaporates to become atmospheric moisture. The oceans are kept full by precipitation and also by runoff and discharge from rivers and the ground. Many people probably have an overly-simplified idea that precipitation falls on the land, flows overland (runoff), and runs into rivers, which then empty into the oceans. That is "overly simplified" because rivers also gain and lose water to the ground. Still, it is true that much of the water in rivers comes directly from runoff from the land surface, which is defined as surface runoff.

When rain hits saturated or impervious ground it begins to flow overland downhill. It is easy to see if it flows down your driveway to the curb and into a storm sewer, but it is harder to notice it flowing overland in a natural setting. During a heavy rain you might notice small rivulets of water flowing downhill. Water will flow along channels as it moves into larger creeks, streams, and rivers. This picture gives a graphic example of how surface runoff (here flowing off a road) enters a small creek. The runoff in this case is flowing over bare soil and is depositing sediment into the river (not good for water quality). The runoff entering this creek is beginning its journey back to the ocean.

Image: Stormwater Runoff in Rapid City, SD

Much of the water in rivers comes directly from rainfall runoff from the landscape. 

Credit: Galen Hoogestraat, USGS

As with all aspects of the water cycle, the interaction between precipitation and surface runoff varies according to time and geography. Similar storms occurring in the Amazon jungle and in the desert Southwest of the United States will produce different surface-runoff effects. Surface runoff is affected by both meteorological factors and the physical geology and topography of the land. Only about a third of the precipitation that falls over land runs off into streams and rivers and is returned to the oceans. The other two-thirds is evaporated, transpired, or soaks (infiltrates) into groundwater. Surface runoff can also be diverted by humans for their own uses.

The small creek shown in the picture above will merge with another creek, eventually flowing into a larger river. Thus, this creek is a tributary to a river somewhere downstream, and the water in that river will eventually flow into an ocean. The concept is not that much different from the small capillaries in your body carrying blood to larger arteries, eventually finding its way to your heart, analogous to the ocean.

Meteorological factors affecting runoff:

  • Type of precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, etc.)
  • Rainfall intensity
  • Rainfall amount
  • Rainfall duration
  • Distribution of rainfall over the drainage basin
  • Direction of storm movement
  • Precipitation that occurred earlier and resulting soil moisture
  • Other meteorological and climatic conditions that affect evapotranspiration, such as temperature, wind, relative humidity, and season

Physical characteristics affecting runoff:

  • Land use
  • Vegetation
  • Soil type
  • Drainage area
  • Basin shape
  • Elevation
  • Topography, especially the slope of the land
  • Drainage network patterns
  • Ponds, lakes, reservoirs, sinks, etc. in the basin, which prevent or delay runoff from continuing downstream


Human activities can affect runoff

Erosion caused by unrestricted rainfall runoff

Severe erosion can occur when people manipulate the landscape without regard to how flowing rainfall runoff will erode exposed soil.

Credit: Howard Perlman, USGS

As more and more people inhabit the Earth, and as more development and urbanization occur, more of the natural landscape is replaced by impervious surfaces, such as roads, houses, parking lots, and buildings that reduce infiltration of water into the ground and accelerate runoff to ditches and streams. In addition to increasing imperviousness, removal of vegetation and soil, grading the land surface, and constructing drainage networks increase runoff volumes and shorten runoff time into streams from rainfall and snowmelt. As a result, the peak discharge, volume, and frequency of floods increase in nearby streams.

Urban development and flooding

Urbanization can have a great effect on hydrologic processes, such as surface-runoff patterns. Imagine it this way: in a natural environment, think of the land in the watershed alongside a stream as a sponge (more precisely, as layers of sponges of different porosities) sloping uphill away from the stream. When it rains some water is absorbed into the sponge (infiltration) and some runs off the surface of the sponge into the stream (runoff). Assume a storm lasting one hour occurs and one-half of the rainfall enters the stream and the rest is absorbed by the sponges. Now, gravity is still at play here, so the water in the sponges will start moving in a general downward direction, with most of it seeping out and into the streambanks during the next day or two.

Chart comparing streamflow and time for a rural versus urban site.

Next, imagine that roads and buildings have replaced most of the watershed surface. When that one inch of rainfall occurs, it can't infiltrate these impervious surfaces and will runoff directly into the stream, and very quickly, too! The result is a very quick and short-lived urban flood, rather than a gradual rise and fall in the river. Still, a flood lasting even 10 short minutes is enough to ruin your basement.

This concept is illustrated by this hydrograph of a rural (Newaukum Creek - blue line) and an urban (Mercer Creek - green line) creek in Washington State. If you measured the area under both curves (the total volume of water that flowed by the measurement location for the time period shown on the X axis) in the chart, they might be the same. But in the urban stream, the water at the measurement site rose at a much higher rate and reached a much higher stage (height) than the rural stream did. The tall, steep curve of Mercer Creek showed that much higher streamflows occurred in the urban stream. The urban stream stage fell back towards baseflow much quicker, too, indicating that it wasn't receiving much seepage from groundwater. "Base flow" is the sustained flow of a stream in the absence of direct runoff. It includes natural and human-induced streamflows. Natural base flow is sustained largely by groundwater discharges.

The rural stream rose much slower and reached a lower peak, meaning it may not have flooded at all. It took longer to fall back to baseflow as groundwater slowly seeped into the streambanks over the next week.