Shifting groundwater fluxes in bedrock fractures: Evidence from stream water radon and water isotopes

Keira Johnson, John N. Christensen, W. Payton Gardner, Matthias Sprenger, Li Li, Kenneth H. Williams, Rosemary W.H. Carroll, Nicholas Thiros, Wendy Brown, Curtis Beutler, Alexander Newman, Pamela L. Sullivan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Geologic features (e.g., fractures and alluvial fans) can play an important role in the locations and volumes of groundwater discharge and degree of groundwater-surface water (GW-SW) interactions. However, the role of these features in controlling GW-SW dynamics and streamflow generation processes are not well constrained. GW-SW interactions and streamflow generation processes are further complicated by variability in precipitation inputs from summer and fall monsoon rains, as well as declines in snowpack and changing melt dynamics driven by warming temperatures. Using high spatial and temporal resolution radon and water stable isotope sampling and a 1D groundwater flux model, we evaluated how groundwater contributions and GW-SW interactions varied along a stream reach impacted by fractures (fractured-zone) and downstream of the fractured hillslope (non-fractured zone) in Coal Creek, a Colorado River headwater stream affected by summer monsoons. During early summer, groundwater contributions from the fractured zone were high, but declined throughout the summer. Groundwater contributions from the non-fractured zone were constant throughout the summer and became proportionally more important later in the summer. We hypothesize that groundwater in the non-fractured zone is dominantly sourced from a high-storage alluvial fan at the base of a tributary that is connected to Coal Creek throughout the summer and provides consistent groundwater influx. Water isotope data revealed that Coal Creek responds quickly to incoming precipitation early in the summer, and summer precipitation becomes more important for streamflow generation later in the summer. We quantified the change in catchment dynamic storage and found it negatively related to stream water isotope values, and positively related to modeled groundwater discharge and the ratio of fractured zone to non-fractured zone groundwater. We interpret these relationships as declining hydrologic connectivity throughout the summer leading to late summer streamflow supported predominantly by shallow flow paths, with variable response to drying from geologic features based on their storage. As groundwater becomes more important for sustaining summer flows, quantifying local geologic controls on groundwater inputs and their response to variable moisture conditions may become critical for accurate predictions of streamflow.

Original languageEnglish
Article number131202
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - May 2024


  • Groundwater discharge
  • Groundwater modeling
  • Groundwater surface water interactions
  • Montane catchment
  • Tracer hydrology


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