Understanding Groundwater-Surface Water Interactions Using a Paired Tracer Approach in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains
Abstract:The eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains produce the majority of Alberta’s surface water supply. While land disturbance affects hydrologic processes governing runoff and water quality, groundwater-surface water interactions may be an important component of catchment resistance to hydrological change. The objectives of this study were to describe reach and sub-catchment coupling of groundwater and surface water processes and to characterize the role of groundwater contribution to surface discharge across spatial and temporal scales.
This research is part of Phase II of the Southern Rockies Watershed Project investigating the hydrological effects of three forest harvest treatments (clear-cutting with retention, strip cutting, and partial-cutting) in the front-range Rocky Mountains in the Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. Six nested hydrometric stations in Star Creek (10.4 km2) were used to collect pre-disturbance stream discharge and water quality data (2009-2014). Instantaneous differential streamflow gauging was conducted on reaches ~700 m in length to define stream reaches that were gaining or losing water. Constant rate tracer injection was conducted on gaining reaches to further refine regions of groundwater inputs during high flows, the recession limb of the annual hydrograph, and summer baseflows.
Despite being a snow-dominated catchment, groundwater is a major contributor to annual streamflow (60 – 70 %). In general, locations of gaining and losing reaches were consistent across spatial and temporal scales of investigation. A strong losing reach in one sub-basin was observed where underflow may be responsible for the loss of streamflow along this section of the stream. However, strong groundwater upwelling was also observed in a reach lower in the catchment likely due to a “pinch-point” in topographic relief. Spatial and temporal variations in groundwater-surface water interactions are likely important factors in hydrologic resistance to land disturbance.