In hydrological models, variably saturated flow is often described using the Richards equation, either in a fully three-dimensional (3D) implementation or using a quasi-3D framework based on the 1D Richards equation for vertical flow and a flow-approximation for the other two dimensions. However, it is unclear in which configuration or under which boundary conditions these approximations can produce adequate estimates. In this study, two formulations with a quasi-3D approach are benchmarked against a fully 3D model (HYDRUS-3D). The formulations are: the Real-time Integrated Basin Simulator + VEGetation Generator for Interactive Evolution (tRIBS + VEGGIE) model that uses the Dupuit–Forchheimer assumption and the Tethys & Chloris (T&C) model that implements the kinematic approach. Effects of domain slope, hillslope size, event size and initial moisture conditions on simulated runoff and soil moisture dynamics are examined in event-based simulations at the hillslope scale. The Dupuit–Forchheimer assumption (tRIBS-VEGGIE) produces deviations from the HYDRUS-3D solutions only for simulations with initially dry soil. Using the kinematic approach (T&C) results in deviations from the 3D solution primarily for the small hillslope domain in combination with a gentle slope angle. This applies especially to the partition between subsurface and surface runoff production, with T&C being biased towards the latter. For all other cases investigated, the simpler formulations provide reasonable approximations of the 3D model.

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