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Keywords:

  • river–aquifer interaction;
  • hydraulic gradient;
  • floods;
  • flood recharge;
  • recharge mechanisms;
  • hydrologic tracers

Abstract

The rise in stream stage during high flow events (floods) can induce losing stream conditions, even along stream reaches that are gaining during baseflow conditions. The aquifer response to flood events can affect the geochemical composition of both near-stream groundwater and post-event streamflow, but the amount and persistence of recharged floodwater may differ as a function of local hydrogeologic forcings. As a result, this study focuses on how vertical flood recharge varies under different hydrogeologic forcings and the significance that recharge processes can have on groundwater and streamflow composition after floods.

River and shallow groundwater samples were collected along three reaches of the Upper San Pedro River (Arizona, USA) before, during and after the 2009 and 2010 summer monsoon seasons. Tracer data from these samples indicate that subsurface floodwater propagation and residence times are strongly controlled by the direction and magnitude of the dominant stream–aquifer gradient. A reach that is typically strongly gaining shows minimal floodwater retention shortly after large events, whereas the moderately gaining and losing reaches can retain recharged floodwater from smaller events for longer periods. The moderately gaining reach likely returned flood recharge to the river as flow declined. These results indicate that reach-scale differences in hydrogeologic forcing can control (i) the amount of local flood recharge during events and (ii) the duration of its subsurface retention and possible return to the stream during low-flow periods. Our observations also suggest that the presence of floodwater in year-round baseflow is not due to long-term storage beneath the streambed along predominantly gaining reaches, so three alternative mechanisms are suggested: (i) repeated flooding that drives lateral redistribution of previously recharged floodwater, (ii) vertical recharge on the floodplain during overbank flow events and (iii) temporal variability in the stream–aquifer gradient due to seasonally varying water demands of riparian vegetation. Copyright © 2011 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.