The Exit Gradient As a Measure of Groundwater Dependency of Watershed Ecosystem Services

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Barton R Faulkner, Timothy J. Canfield and Groves F. Justin, Robert S Kerr Environ Res Ctr, Ada, OK, United States
Flux of groundwater to surface water is often of great interest for the determination of the groundwater dependency of ecosystem services, such as maintenance of wetlands and of baseflow as a contributor to stream channel storage. It is difficult to measure. Most methods are based on coarse mass balance estimates or seepage meters. One drawback of these methods is they are not entirely spatially explicit. The exit gradient is commonly used in engineering studies of hydraulic structures affected by groundwater flow. It can be simply defined in the groundwater modeling context as the ratio of the difference between the computed head and the land surface elevation, for each computational cell, to the thickness of the cell, as it varies in space. When combined with calibrated groundwater flow models, it also has the potential to be useful in watershed scale evaluations of groundwater dependency in a spatially explicit way. We have taken advantage of calibrated models for the Calapooia watershed, Oregon, to map exit gradients for the watershed. Streams in the Calapooia are hydraulically well connected with groundwater. Not surprisingly, we found large variations in exit gradients between wet and dry season model runs, supporting the notion of stream expansion, as observed in the field, which may have a substantial influence on water quality. We have mapped the exit gradients in the wet and dry seasons, and compared them to regions which have been mapped in wetland surveys. Those classified as Palustrine types fell largest in the area of contribution from groundwater. In many cases, substantially high exit gradients, even on average, did not correspond to mapped wetland areas, yet nutrient retention ecosystem services may still be playing a role in these areas. The results also reinforce the notion of the importance of baseflow to maintenance of stream flow, even in the dry summer season in this Temperate/Mediterranean climate. Exit gradient mapping is a simple, yet potentially very useful and underutilized tool for measuring groundwater dependency in watershed scale ecosystem services studies, and could potentially be used to predict effects due to groundwater stresses resulting from water withdrawals.

This is an abstract of a proposed presentation and does not necessarily reflect EPA policy.