This study develops a method for estimating the average in-stream residence time of water in a river channel and across large catchments, i.e. the time between water entering a river and reaching a downstream monitoring point. The methodology uses river flow gauging data to integrate Manning’s equation along a length of channel for different percentile flows. The method was developed and tested for the River Tees in northern England and then applied across the United Kingdom (UK). (i) The study developed methods to predict channel width and main channel length from catchment area. (ii) For an 818 km2 catchment with a channel length of 79 km, the in-stream residence time at the 50% exceedence flow was 13.8 h. (iii) The method was applied to nine UK river basins and the results showed that in-stream residence time was related to the average slope of a basin and its average annual rainfall. (iv) For the UK as a whole, the discharge-weighted in-stream residence time was 26.7 h for the median flow. At median flow, 50% of the discharge-weighted in-stream residence time was due to only 6 out of the 323 catchments considered. (v) Since only a few large rivers dominate the in-stream residence time, these rivers will dominate key biogeochemical processes controlling export at the national scale. (vi) The implications of the results for biogeochemistry, especially the turnover of carbon in rivers, are discussed.
NOTICE: this is the author’s version of a work that was accepted for publication in Journal of Hydrology. Changes resulting from the publishing process, such as peer review, editing, corrections, structural formatting, and other quality control mechanisms may not be reflected in this document. Changes may have been made to this work since it was submitted for publication. A definitive version was subsequently published in Journal of Hydrology, 512, 2014, 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2014.02.050.