Where the water goes: Partitioning surface flow and streambed infiltration in an ephemeral river laboratory experiment

Daniel Partington, Margaret Shanafield, Eddie W. Banks, Martin S. Andersen, Gabriel C. Rau, Stefan Felder, Craig T. Simmons

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Ephemeral and intermittent flow in dryland streams plays a vital role in supporting delicate ecosystems and recharging groundwater in underlying aquifers. Despite extensive research, accurately predicting surface runoff, streambed water infiltration, and groundwater recharge during ephemeral streamflow events remains challenging due to the complex physical processes involved. Such processes are logistically difficult to observe in the field and should not be assessed through numerical studies alone. To tackle this complexity, we utilized an 8 m long, 0.25 m wide, and 0.6 m deep laboratory flume filled with fine sand as a physical model for event flows along a dry stream. This flume allowed us to measure both streamflow and streambed infiltration volumetrically as the stream wetting front advanced along its length during 8 steady inflow rates. The flume was divided into separate compartments to measure water across the sediment surface (streamflow) and water exiting through the flume's bottom (groundwater recharge). To validate our physical tests, we compared them with simulated flows in an integrated surface–subsurface hydrological numerical model. The model results exhibited good agreement with the observed stream and groundwater dynamics. Through a parametric numerical investigation, we identified that hydraulic conductivity significantly controlled the rate of surface infiltration and the advancement of the stream wetting front. Interestingly, we found a linear relationship between surface discharge and stream wetting front location, as well as groundwater recharge, under steady-state conditions, in line with the governing equations. However, our simulations of variable streambed heterogeneity and elevation unveiled the crucial influence of these factors in determining the timing of downstream flow progression. This insight is essential for establishing ecological connectivity along non-perennial rivers and has significant implications for delivering environmental flows in arid regions where ephemeral rivers are prevalent. Our study underscores the value of flume experiments in elucidating the transient physical processes during surface water and groundwater interactions in intermittent streams. By employing a combination of physical modelling and numerical simulations, we advance our understanding of these vital hydrological interactions, contributing to sustainable water management practices in semi-arid and arid environments.

Original languageEnglish
Article number130159
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue numberPart A
Early online date15 Sept 2023
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2023


  • Flume experiments
  • Groundwater recharge
  • Intermittent streams
  • Numerical modelling
  • Transmission loss


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