Articles | Volume 13, issue 7
16 Jul 2009
 | 16 Jul 2009

The significance and lag-time of deep through flow: an example from a small, ephemeral catchment with contrasting soil types in the Adelaide Hills, South Australia

E. Bestland, S. Milgate, D. Chittleborough, J. VanLeeuwen, M. Pichler, and L. Soloninka

Abstract. The importance of deep soil-regolith through flow in a small (3.4 km2) ephemeral catchment in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia was investigated by detailed hydrochemical analysis of soil water and stream flow during autumn and early winter rains. In this Mediterranean climate with strong summer moisture deficits, several significant rainfalls are required to generate soil through flow and stream flow [in ephemeral streams]. During autumn 2007, a large (127 mm) drought-breaking rain occurred in April followed by significant May rains; most of this April and May precipitation occurred prior to the initiation of stream flow in late May. These early events, especially the 127 mm April event, had low stable water isotope values compared with later rains during June and July and average winter precipitation. Thus, this large early autumn rain event with low isotopic values (δ18O, δD) provided an excellent natural tracer. During later June and July rainfall events, daily stream and soil water samples were collected and analysed. Results from major and trace elements, water isotopes (δ18O, δD), and dissolved organic carbon analysis clearly demonstrate that a large component of this early April and May rain was stored and later pushed out of deep soil and regolith zones. This pre-event water was identified in the stream as well as identified in deep soil horizons due to its different isotopic signature which contrasted sharply with the June–July event water. Based on this data, the soil-regolith hydrologic system for this catchment has been re-thought. The catchment area consists of about 60% sandy and 40% clayey soils. Regolith flow in the sandy soil system and not the clayey soil system is now thought to dominate the deep subsurface flow in this catchment. The clayey texture contrast soils had rapid response to rain events and saturation excess overland flow. The sandy soils had delayed soil through flow and infiltration excess overland flow. A pulse of macropore through flow was observed in the sandy soils three days after the rainfall event largely ended. The macropore water was a mixture of pre-event and event water, demonstrating the lag-time and mixing of the water masses in the sandy soil system. By contrast, the clayey soil horizons were not dominated by pre-event water, demonstrating the quicker response and shallow through flow of the clayey soil system. Thus, the sandy terrain has a greater vadose zone storage and greater lag time of through flow than the clayey terrain.