Articles | Volume 18, issue 7
Special issue:
Opinion article
16 Jul 2014
Opinion article |  | 16 Jul 2014

HESS Opinions "Integration of groundwater and surface water research: an interdisciplinary problem?"

R. Barthel

Abstract. Today there is a great consensus that water resource research needs to become more holistic, integrating perspectives of a large variety of disciplines. Groundwater and surface water (hereafter: GW and SW) are typically identified as different compartments of the hydrological cycle and were traditionally often studied and managed separately. However, despite this separation, these respective fields of study are usually not considered to be different disciplines. They are often seen as different specializations of hydrology with a different focus yet similar theory, concepts, and methodology. The present article discusses how this notion may form a substantial obstacle in the further integration of GW and SW research and management.

The article focuses on the regional scale (areas of approximately 103 to 106 km2), which is identified as the scale where integration is most greatly needed, but ironically where the least amount of fully integrated research seems to be undertaken. The state of research on integrating GW and SW research is briefly reviewed and the most essential differences between GW hydrology (or hydrogeology, geohydrology) and SW hydrology are presented. Groundwater recharge and baseflow are used as examples to illustrate different perspectives on similar phenomena that can cause severe misunderstandings and errors in the conceptualization of integration schemes. The fact that integration of GW and SW research on the regional scale necessarily must move beyond the hydrological aspects, by collaborating with the social sciences and increasing the interaction between science and society in general, is also discussed. The typical elements of an ideal interdisciplinary workflow are presented and their relevance with respect to the integration of GW and SW is discussed.

The overall conclusions are that GW hydrology and SW hydrogeology study rather different objects of interest, using different types of observation, working on different problem settings. They have thus developed a different theory, methodology and terminology. However, there seems to be a widespread lack of awareness of these differences, which hinders the detection of the existing interdisciplinary aspects of GW and SW integration and consequently the development of a truly unifying interdisciplinary theory and methodology. Thus, despite having the ultimate goal of creating a more holistic approach, we may have to start integration by analyzing potential disciplinary differences. Improved understanding among hydrologists of what interdisciplinary means and how it works is needed. Hydrologists, despite frequently being involved in multidisciplinary projects, are not sufficiently involved in developing interdisciplinary strategies and do usually not regard the process of integration as such as a research topic of its own. There seems to be a general reluctance to apply a (truly) interdisciplinary methodology because this is tedious and few immediate incentives are experienced.

The objective of the present opinion paper is to stimulate a discussion rather than to provide recipes on how to integrate GW and SW research or to explain how specific problems of GW–SW interaction should be solved on a technical level. For that purpose it presents complicated topics in a rather simplified, bold way, ignoring to some degree subtleties and potentially controversial issues.

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