Sources and mean transit times of stream water in an intermittent river system: the upper Wimmera River, southeast Australia

Zibo Zhou, Ian Cartwright, Uwe Morgenstern

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Determining the mean transit times (MTTs) and water sources in catchments at different flow conditions helps better understand river functioning, and manage river health and water resources. Despite being common in a range of environments, the MTTs and water sources in intermittent streams are much less well understood compared to perennial streams. Major ion geochemistry, stable isotopes, 14C, and 3H were used in this study to identify water sources and MTTs of the periodically intermittent upper Wimmera River from southeast Australia at different flow conditions, including zero-flow periods. The disconnected pool waters during the zero-flow period in the summer months of 2019 had 3H activities of 0.64 to 3.29 TU. These and the variations in total dissolved solids and stable isotopes imply that these pools contained a mixture of older groundwater and younger stream water impacted by evaporation. 3H activities during the high-flow period in July 2019 were 1.85 to 3.00 TU, yielding MTTs of up to 17 years. The 3H activities at moderate and low-flow conditions in September and November 2019 ranged from 2.26 to 2.88 TU, implying MTTs of 1.6 to 7.8 years. Regional groundwater near the Wimmera River had 3H activities of < 0.02 to 0.45 TU and 14C activities of 57 to 103 pMC, and was not recharged by the river at high flows. The Wimmera River and other intermittent streams in southeast Australia are sustained by younger catchment waters from relatively small near-river stores than comparable perennial streams, which have older deeper regional groundwater inputs. This results in these intermittent streams being more susceptible to short-term changes in climate and necessitates the protection of near-river corridors to maintain the health of the riverine systems.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4497-4513
Number of pages17
JournalHydrology and Earth System Sciences
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 9 Sept 2022

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