Acidification of floodplains due to river level decline during drought

Luke Mosley, David Palmer, Emily Leyden, F Cook, Benjamin Zammit, Paul Shand, Andrew Baker, Robert Fitzpatrick

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    33 Citations (Scopus)


    A severe drought from 2007 to 2010 resulted in the lowest river levels (1.75 m decline from average) in over 90 years of records at the end of the Murray-Darling Basin in South Australia. Due to the low river level and inability to apply irrigation, the groundwater depth on the adjacent agricultural flood plain also declined substantially (1-1.5 m) and the alluvial clay subsoils dried and cracked. Sulfidic material (pH > 4, predominantly in the form of pyrite, FeS 2 ) in these subsoils oxidised to form sulfuric material (pH < 4) over an estimated 3300 ha on 13 floodplains. Much of the acidity in the deeply cracked contaminated soil layers was in available form (in pore water and on cation exchange sites), with some layers having retained acidity (iron oxyhydroxysulfate mineral jarosite). Post drought, the rapid raising of surface and ground water levels mobilised acidity in acid sulfate soil profiles to the floodplain drainage channels and this was transported back to the river via pumping. The drainage water exhibited low pH (2-5) with high soluble metal (Al, Co, Mn, Fe, Mn, Ni, and Zn) concentrations, in exceedance of guidelines for ecosystem protection. Irrigation increased the short-term transport of acidity, however loads were generally greater in the non-irrigation (winter) season when rainfall is highest (0.0026 tonnes acidity/ha/day) than in the irrigation (spring-summer) season (0.0013 tonnes acidity/ha/day). Measured reductions in groundwater acidity and increases in pH have been observed over time but severe acidification persisted in floodplain sediments and waters for over two years post-drought. Results from 2-dimensional modelling of the river-floodplain hydrological processes were consistent with field measurements during the drying phase and illustrated how the declining river levels led to floodplain acidification. A modelled management scenario demonstrated how river level stabilisation and limited irrigation could have prevented, or greatly lessened the severity of the acidification.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)10-23
    Number of pages14
    JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
    Publication statusPublished - Jun 2014


    • Acid drainage
    • Acid sulfate soils
    • Climate change
    • Pyrite oxidation
    • Surface-groundwater interactions


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