Residence times of stream-groundwater exchanges due to transient stream stage fluctuations

James McCallum, Margaret Shanafield

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38 Citations (Scopus)
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The biogeochemical functioning of stream ecosystems is heavily dependent on water and water-borne nutrient fluxes between the stream itself and the streambed and banks (i.e., the hyporheic zone). The travel time of water exchanges through the hyporheic zone has been investigated previously; however, these studies have primarily modeled exchanges under steady state conditions assuming spatial pressure variations. This assumes that the hydraulic gradients that drive the exchanges are maintained the whole time the stream water remains in the bed or banks, which is unrealistic. Therefore, in this study we use a transient approach to investigate residence time distributions (RTDs) of bank inflow and bank outflow during both regular, diurnal stream stage variations and storm flow events. We demonstrate that RTDs reflect the timing and magnitude bank inflows, rather than smooth RTDs. We also show that small percentages of water from a given bank inflow event may be present in bank outflows for long periods of time, due to dispersion and diffusion within the bank, and lower rates of bank outflow, relative to bank inflow. This is apparent in the synthetic model of a single storm flow event, where 10% remained in the bank after 50 days. Additionally, residence times for a given bank inflow event are longer when repeated events occur, because the bank outflows from one event are "interrupted" by an increase in stream stage during a successive event. For example, field data capturing events of variable timing and magnitude showed that 70 days after each of three storm flow events occurred, 40, 12 and 30% of the bank inflow event remained in the banks. These cases indicate that bank exchanges are temporally dynamic and the RTDs of return flows can have significant tailing, which will dictate rates of nutrient exchange within the near-stream environment.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2059-2073
Number of pages15
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2016


  • residence time
  • surface water groundwater interactions


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