Streams as mirrors: reading subsurface water chemistry from stream chemistry

Stewart, Bryn; Shanley, James B.; Kirchner, James W.; Norris, David; Adler, Thomas; Bristol, Caitlin; Harpold, Adrian A.; Perdrial, Julia N.; Rizzo, Donna M.; Sterle, Gary; Underwood, Kristen L.; Wen, Hang; Li, Li. 2022 Streams as mirrors: reading subsurface water chemistry from stream chemistry. Water Resources Research, 58 (1), e2021WR029931. 20, pp.

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The shallow and deep hypothesis suggests that stream concentration-discharge (CQ) relationships are shaped by distinct source waters from different depths. Under this hypothesis, baseflows are typically dominated by groundwater and mostly reflect groundwater chemistry, whereas high flows are typically dominated by shallow soil water and mostly reflect soil water chemistry. Aspects of this hypothesis draw on applications like end member mixing analyses and hydrograph separation, yet direct data support for the hypothesis remains scarce. This work tests the shallow and deep hypothesis using co-located measurements of soil water, groundwater, and streamwater chemistry at two intensively monitored sites, the W-9 catchment at Sleepers River (Vermont, United States) and the Hafren catchment at Plynlimon (Wales). At both sites, depth profiles of subsurface water chemistry and stream CQ relationships for the 10 solutes analyzed are broadly consistent with the hypothesis. Solutes that are more abundant at depth (e.g., calcium) exhibit dilution patterns (concentration decreases with increasing discharge). Conversely, solutes enriched in shallow soils (e.g., nitrate) generally exhibit flushing patterns (concentration increases with increasing discharge). The hypothesis may hold broadly true for catchments that share such biogeochemical stratifications in the subsurface. Soil water and groundwater chemistries were estimated from high- and low-flow stream chemistries with average relative errors ranging from 24 to 82%. This indicates that streams mirror subsurface waters: stream chemistry can be used to infer scarcely measured subsurface water chemistry, especially where there are distinct shallow and deep end members.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: Soils and Land Use (Science Area 2017-)
ISSN: 0043-1397
NORA Subject Terms: Earth Sciences
Ecology and Environment
Date made live: 31 Dec 2021 16:41 +0 (UTC)

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