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Keywords:

  • hyporheic exchange flows;
  • stream discharge;
  • stream networks;
  • flow exceedance probability;
  • watershed area;
  • hyporheic potential

Abstract

Many hyporheic papers state that the hyporheic zone is a critical component of stream ecosystems, and many of these papers focus on the biogeochemical effects of the hyporheic zone on stream solute loads. However, efforts to show such relationships have proven elusive, prompting several questions: Are the effects of the hyporheic zone on stream ecosystems so highly variable in place and time (or among streams) that a consistent relationship should not be expected? Or, is the hyporheic zone less important in stream ecosystems than is commonly expected? These questions were examined using data from existing groundwater modelling studies of hyporheic exchange flow at five sites in a fifth-order, mountainous stream network. The size of exchange flows, relative to stream discharge (QHEF:Q), was large only in very small streams at low discharge (area ≈ 100 ha; Q < 10 l/s). At higher flows (flow exceedance probability > 0·7) and in all larger streams, QHEF:Q was small. These data show that biogeochemical processes in the hyporheic zone of small streams can substantially influence the stream's solute load, but these processes become hydrologically constrained at high discharge or in larger streams and rivers. The hyporheic zone may influence stream ecosystems in many ways, however, not just through biogeochemical processes that alter stream solute loads. For example, the hyporheic zone represents a unique habitat for some organisms, with patterns and amounts of upwelling and downwelling water determining the underlying physiochemical environment of the hyporheic zone. Similarly, hyporheic exchange creates distinct patches of downwelling and upwelling. Upwelling environments are of special interest, because upwelling water has the potential to be thermally or chemically distinct from stream water. Consequently, micro-environmental patches created by hyporheic exchange flows are likely to be important to biological and ecosystem processes, even if their impact on stream solute loads is small. Published in 2011 by John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.