Insights into the water mean transit time in a high-elevation tropical ecosystem
Abstract. This study focuses on the investigation of the mean transit time (MTT) of water and its spatial variability in a tropical high-elevation ecosystem (wet Andean páramo). The study site is the Zhurucay River Ecohydrological Observatory (7.53 km2) located in southern Ecuador. A lumped parameter model considering five transit time distribution (TTD) functions was used to estimate MTTs under steady-state conditions (i.e., baseflow MTT). We used a unique data set of the δ18O isotopic composition of rainfall and streamflow water samples collected for 3 years (May 2011 to May 2014) in a nested monitoring system of streams. Linear regression between MTT and landscape (soil and vegetation cover, geology, and topography) and hydrometric (runoff coefficient and specific discharge rates) variables was used to explore controls on MTT variability, as well as mean electrical conductivity (MEC) as a possible proxy for MTT. Results revealed that the exponential TTD function best describes the hydrology of the site, indicating a relatively simple transition from rainfall water to the streams through the organic horizon of the wet páramo soils. MTT of the streams is relatively short (0.15–0.73 years, 53–264 days). Regression analysis revealed a negative correlation between the catchment's average slope and MTT (R2 = 0.78, p < 0.05). MTT showed no significant correlation with hydrometric variables, whereas MEC increases with MTT (R2 = 0.89, p < 0.001). Overall, we conclude that (1) baseflow MTT confirms that the hydrology of the ecosystem is dominated by shallow subsurface flow; (2) the interplay between the high storage capacity of the wet páramo soils and the slope of the catchments provides the ecosystem with high regulation capacity; and (3) MEC is an efficient predictor of MTT variability in this system of catchments with relatively homogeneous geology.