Alluvial characteristics, groundwater-surface water exchange and hydrological retention in headwater streams

John A. Morrice, H. Maurice Valett, Clifford N. Dahm, Michael E. Campana

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249 Scopus citations


Conservative solute injections were conducted in three first-order montane streams of different geological composition to assess the influence of parent lithology and alluvial characteristics on the hydrological retention of nutrients. Three study sites were established: (1) Aspen Creek, in a sandstone-siltstone catchment with a fine-grained alluvium of low hydraulic conductivity (1.3 × 10-4 cm/s), (2) Rio Calaveras, which flows through volcanic tuff with alluvium of intermediate grain size and hydraulic conductivity (1.2 × 10-3 cm/s), and (3) Gallina Creek, located in a granite/gneiss catchment of coarse, poorly sorted alluvium with high hydraulic conductivity (4.1 × 10-3 cm/s). All sites were instrumented with networks of shallow groundwater wells to monitor interstitial solute transport. The rate and extent of groundwater-surface water exchange, determined by the solute response in wells, increased with increasing hydraulic conductivity. The direction of surface water-groundwater interaction within a stream was related to local variation in vertical and horizontal hydraulic gradients. Experimental tracer responses in the surface stream were simulated with a one-dimensional solute transport model with inflow and storage components (OTIS). Model-derived measures of hydrological retention showed a corresponding increase with increasing hydraulic conductivity. To assess the temporal variability of hydrological retention, solute injection experiments were conducted in Gallina Creek under four seasonal flow regimes during which surface discharge ranged from baseflow (0.75 l/s in October) to high (75 l/s during spring snowmelt). Model-derived hydrological retention decreased with increasing discharge. The results of our intersite comparison suggest that hydrological retention is strongly influenced by the geologic setting and alluvial characteristics of the stream catchment. Temporal variation in hydrological retention at Gallina Creek is related to seasonal changes in discharge, highlighting the need for temporal resolution in studies of the dynamics of surface water-groundwater interactions in stream ecosystems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)253-267
Number of pages15
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 15 1997


  • Hydraulic conductivity
  • Hyporheic zone
  • Nutrient retention
  • OTIS
  • Stream ecosystem
  • Transient storage zone


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