Cumulative Significance of Hyporheic Exchange and Biogeochemical Processing in River Networks

Friday, 19 December 2014
Jud W Harvey and Jesus D Gomez-Velez, USGS, Reston, VA, United States
Biogeochemical reactions in rivers that decrease excessive loads of nutrients, metals, organic compounds, etc. are enhanced by hydrologic interactions with microbially and geochemically active sediments of the hyporheic zone. The significance of reactions in individual hyporheic flow paths has been shown to be controlled by the contact time between river water and sediment and the intrinsic reaction rate in the sediment. However, little is known about how the cumulative effects of hyporheic processing in large river basins. We used the river network model NEXSS (Gomez-Velez and Harvey, submitted) to simulate hyporheic exchange through synthetic river networks based on the best available models of network topology, hydraulic geometry and scaling of geomorphic features, grain size, hydraulic conductivity, and intrinsic reaction rates of nutrients and metals in river sediment. The dimensionless reaction significance factor, RSF (Harvey et al., 2013) was used to quantify the cumulative removal fraction of a reactive solute by hyporheic processing. SF scales reaction progress in a single pass through the hyporheic zone with the proportion of stream discharge passing through the hyporheic zone for a specified distance. Reaction progress is optimal where the intrinsic reaction timescale in sediment matches the residence time of hyporheic flow and is less efficient in longer residence time hyporheic flow as a result of the decreasing proportion of river flow that is processed by longer residence time hyporheic flow paths. In contrast, higher fluxes through short residence time hyporheic flow paths may be inefficient because of the repeated surface-subsurface exchanges required to complete the reaction. Using NEXSS we found that reaction efficiency may be high in both small streams and large rivers, although for different reasons. In small streams reaction progress generally is dominated by faster pathways of vertical exchange beneath submerged bedforms. Slower exchange beneath meandering river banks mainly has importance only in large rivers. For solutes entering networks in proportion to water inputs it is the lower order streams that tend to dominate cumulative reaction progress.