Using geochemistry to discern the patterns and timescales of groundwater recharge and mixing on floodplains in semi-arid regions

Ian Cartwright, Adrian D. Werner, Juliette A. Woods

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15 Citations (Scopus)
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Floodplains may alternate between discharge zones for regional groundwater and areas of recharge from river water during high-flow events. Understanding the mechanisms and timescales of recharge on floodplains is important for their management and for the protection of fragile ecosystems. The floodplains of the River Murray host important ecosystems, particularly remnant eucalypt forests that are vulnerable to changes in inundation, rising regional water tables, and salt accumulation. This study addresses floodplain recharge and groundwater mixing on the Pike and Katarapko floodplains of South Australia. At Pike, 3 H activities of groundwater in the low hydraulic conductivity Coonambidgal Formation that crops out on the floodplain are ∼0.25 TU. 3 H activities of groundwater in the underlying higher hydraulic conductivity Monoman Formation decrease from ∼1 TU near the contact with the Coonambidgal Formation to <0.02 TU at >15 m depth. Groundwater 14 C activities are between 40 and 95 pMC but are less well correlated with depth. The 3 H or 14 C activities do not vary systematically with distance from the surface water channels on the floodplains. These observations imply that groundwater recharge at Pike is dominantly through the floodplain rather than through the channel banks. In contrast to the regional groundwater where total dissolved solids (TDS) concentrations are commonly >35,000 mg/L, the TDS of groundwater on the floodplain is locally <500 mg/L. A correlation between 3 H activities and TDS and the presence of groundwater with relatively low 14 C activities but above detection 3 H activities implies that recently recharged waters have mixed with regional groundwater in the floodplain sediments. The 3 H activities in these mixed waters implies that mixing occurs over a few years. By contrast, at Katarapko, the highest 3 H activities in the Monoman Formation groundwater (up to 2.35 TU) are closer to the Murray River, implying that recharge through the bank may occur. These contrasting patterns of recharge probably reflect local topographic controls. Understanding the recharge-discharge relationships are vital for managing proposed floodplain inundation programs aimed at improving ecosystem health.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)612-622
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2019


  • Floodplain ecosystems
  • Groundwater geochemistry
  • Recharge
  • Residence times
  • Riverine environments


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