River basins as groundwater exporters and importers: Implications for water cycle and climate modeling



[1] The groundwater reservoir and its interaction with surface water facilitate lateral transport of continental water and energy. Current climate models do not account for long-distance groundwater flow between model cells but route the atmospheric surplus (precipitation (P) minus evapotranspiration (ET)) directly to stream discharge within a model grid cell. We ask how much water exits a river basin without ever passing through its surface outlet? What are the climatologic and geologic factors influencing this flux? To answer these questions, a separation of groundwater flow from river flow is necessary. We use the ratio of stream discharge (Qr) to basin recharge (R = P − ET) for this purpose; where Qr:R < 1, a basin is considered a groundwater exporter; and where Qr:R > 1, a basin is considered a groundwater importer. Here Qr is obtained from 39 years of U.S. Geological Survey Hydro-Climatic Data Network observed stream discharge from 1555 basins across the continental United States, and R (P − ET) is derived from 50 years of hydrologic simulation by the Variable Infiltration Capacity model. It was found that the Qr:R ratio deviates significantly from 1 across the continent. Detailed investigations of individual basins suggest that the deviations are primarily a function of geology, while climate and basin scale influence the magnitude of these deviations. Further, a marked incongruity between the surface and groundwater flow directions is apparent, suggesting that surface drainage is only partially indicative of subsurface flow regimes. The apparent significance of this long-distance groundwater flow component reinforces the need for inclusion of the groundwater reservoir in current water cycle and climate modeling efforts.