Faculté des sciences

Contribution of alluvial groundwater to the outflow of mountainous catchments

Käser, Daniel ; Hunkeler, Daniel

In: Water Resources Research, 2016, vol. 52, p. 680-697

Alluvial aquifers in mountainous regions cover typically a limited area. Their contribution to catchment storage and outflow is rarely isolated; alluvial groundwater discharge under gauging stations is generally assumed negligible; and hydrological models tend to lump alluvial storage with other units. The role of alluvial aquifers remains therefore unclear: can they contribute significantly to... Plus

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    Summary
    Alluvial aquifers in mountainous regions cover typically a limited area. Their contribution to catchment storage and outflow is rarely isolated; alluvial groundwater discharge under gauging stations is generally assumed negligible; and hydrological models tend to lump alluvial storage with other units. The role of alluvial aquifers remains therefore unclear: can they contribute significantly to outflow when they cover a few percent of catchment area? Should they be considered a dynamic storage unit or merely a transmission zone? We address these issues based on the continuous monitoring of groundwater discharge, river discharge (one year), and aquifer storage (6 months) in the 6 km2 alluvial system of a 194 km2 catchment. River and groundwater outflow were measured jointly through ‘‘coupled gauging stations.’’ The contribution of alluvial groundwater to outflow was highest at the outlet of a subcatchment (52 km2), where subsurface discharge amounted to 15% of mean annual outflow, and 85% of outflow during the last week of a drought. In this period, alluvial-aquifer depletion supported 75% of the subcatchment outflow and 35% of catchment outflow—thus 3% of the entire catchment supported a third of the outflow. Storage fluctuations occurred predominantly in the aquifer’s upstream part, where heads varied over 6 m. Not only does this section act as a significant water source, but storage recovers also rapidly at the onset of precipitation. Storage dynamics were best conceptualized along the valley axis, rather than across the more conventional riparian-channel transect. Overall the contribution of alluvial aquifers to catchment outflow deserves more attention.