Evaluating groundwater discharge to tidal rivers based on a time series Rn-222 approach

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Peterson, RN, Santos, IR & Burnett, WC 2010, 'Evaluating groundwater discharge to tidal rivers based on a time series Rn-222 approach', Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, vol. 82, no. 2,pp. 165-178.

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The natural flux of groundwater into coastal water bodies has recently been shown to contribute significant quantities of nutrients and trace metals to the coastal ocean. Groundwater discharge and hyporheic exchange to estuaries and rivers, however, is frequently overlooked though it often carries a distinctly different chemical signature than surface waters. Most studies that attempt to quantify this input to rivers use multiple geochemical tracers. However, these studies are often limited in their spatial and temporal extents because of the labor-intensive nature of integrating multiple measurement techniques. We describe here a method of using a single tracer, 222Rn, to rapidly characterize groundwater discharge into tidally-influenced rivers and streams. In less than one week of fieldwork, we determined that of six streams that empty into the Indian River Lagoon (IRL), Florida, three (Eau Gallie River, Turkey Creek, and Main Canal) did not receive substantial groundwater inputs, one canal (C-25 Canal) was dominated by groundwater exchange, and the remaining two (Sebastian River system and Crane Creek) fell somewhere in between. For more detailed discharge assessments, we focused on the Sebastian River system, a stratified tidal river estuary, during a relatively dry period (June) and a wet period (July) in 2008. Using time-series 222Rn and current velocity measurements we found that groundwater discharge into all three branches of the Sebastian River increased by 1–2 orders of magnitude during the wetter period. The estimated groundwater flow rates were higher than those reported into the adjacent IRL, suggesting that discharge into these rivers can be more important than direct discharge into the IRL. The techniques employed here should work equally well in other river/stream systems that experience significant groundwater discharge. Such assessments would allow area managers to quickly assess the distribution and magnitude of groundwater discharge nature into rivers over large spatial ranges.