Disconnected surface water and groundwater: from theory to practice

Philip Brunner, Peter Cook, Craig Simmons

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    83 Citations (Scopus)


    When describing the hydraulic relationship between rivers and aquifers, the term disconnected is frequently misunderstood or used in an incorrect way. The problem is compounded by the fact that there is no definitive literature on the topic of disconnected surface water and groundwater. We aim at closing this gap and begin the discussion with a short introduction to the historical background of the terminology. Even though a conceptual illustration of a disconnected system was published by Meinzer (1923), it is only within the last few years that the underlying physics of the disconnection process has been described. The importance of disconnected systems, however, is not widely appreciated. Although rarely explicitly stated, many approaches for predicting the impacts of groundwater development on surface water resources assume full connection. Furthermore, management policies often suggest that surface water and groundwater should only be managed jointly if they are connected. However, although lowering the water table beneath a disconnected section of a river will not change the infiltration rate at that point, it can increase the length of stream that is disconnected. Because knowing the state of connection is of fundamental importance for sustainable water management, robust field methods that allow the identification of the state of connection are required. Currently, disconnection is identified by showing that the infiltration rate from a stream to an underlying aquifer is independent of the water table position or by identifying an unsaturated zone under the stream. More field studies are required to develop better methods for the identification of disconnection and to quantify the implications of heterogeneity and clogging processes in the streambed on disconnection.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)460-467
    Number of pages8
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - Jul 2011


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