The ecological significance of exchange processes between rivers and groundwater


MATTHIAS BRUNKE Limnological Research Centre, Department of Limnology, EAWAG, 6047 Kastanienbaum, Switzerland


1. This review focuses on the connectivity between river and groundwater ecosystems, viewing them as linked components of a hydrological continuum. Ecological processes that maintain the integrity of both systems and those that are mediated by their ecotones are evaluated.

2. The hyporheic zone, as the connecting ecotone, shows diverse gradients. Thus it can be characterized by hydrological, chemical, zoological and metabolic criteria. However, the characteristics of the hyporheic zone tend to vary widely in space and time as well as from system to system. The exact limits are difficult to designate and the construction of static concepts is inadequate for the representation of ecological processes. The hyporheic interstices are functionally a part of both the fluvial and groundwater ecosystems.

3. The permeability of the ecotone depends on the hydraulic conductivity of the sediment layers which, because of their heterogeneity, form many flowpath connections between the stream and the catchment, from the small scale of a single microhabitat to the large scale of an entire alluvial aquifer. Local up- and downwellings are determined by geomorphologic features such as streambed topography, whereas large-scale exchange processes are determined mainly by the geological properties of the catchment. Colmation—clogging of the top layer of the channel sediments—includes all processes leading to a reduction of pore volume, consolidation of the sediment matrix, and decreased permeability of the stream bed. Consequently, colmation can hinder exchange processes between surface water and groundwater.

4. Physicochemical gradients in the interstices result from several processes: (i) hyporheic flow pattern and the different properties of surface and groundwaters; (ii) retention, caused by the filtering effect of pore size and lithologic sorption as well as the transient storage of solutes caused by diminished water velocities; (iii) biogeochemical transformations in conjunction with local residence time. Each physicochemical parameter may develop its own vertical dynamics laterally from the active channel into the banks as well as longitudinally because of geomorphologic changes.

5. The river–groundwater interface can act as a source or sink for dissolved organic matter, depending on the volume and direction of flow, dissolved organic carbon concentrations and biotic activity. Interstitial storage of particulate organic matter is influenced mainly by grain size distribution and by spates involving bedload movement that may import or release matter, depending on the season. After initial transient and abiotic storage, hyporheic organic matter is mobilized and transformed by the biota. Micro-organisms account for over 90% of the community respiration. In subterranean waters most bacteria are attached to surfaces and remain in a biofilm.

6. Hyporheic interstices are functionally significant for phreatic and riverine metazoans because they act as a refuge against adverse conditions. The net flow direction exerts a dominant influence on interstitial colonization, but many other factors also seem to be important in structuring the hyporheos.

7. The hyporheic corridor concept emphasizes connectivity and interactions between subterranean and surface flow on an ecosystem level for floodplain rivers. It is a complementary concept to others which focus on surficial processes in the lateral and longitudinal dimensions.

8. The ecological integrity of groundwater and fluvial systems is often threatened by human activities: (i) by reducing connectivity; (ii) by altering exchange processes; and (iii) by toxic or organic contamination.