Articles | Volume 22, issue 1
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 635–653, 2018
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 22, 635–653, 2018

Research article 25 Jan 2018

Research article | 25 Jan 2018

Mean transit times in headwater catchments: insights from the Otway Ranges, Australia

William Howcroft1, Ian Cartwright1,2, and Uwe Morgenstern3 William Howcroft et al.
  • 1School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, 9 Rainforest Walk, Monash University, Clayton, VIC 3800, Australia
  • 2National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training, G.P.O. Box 2100, Flinders University, Adelaide, SA 5001, Australia
  • 3GNS Science, 1 Fairway Drive, Avalon, P.O. Box 368, Lower Hutt 5040, New Zealand

Abstract. Understanding the timescales of water flow through catchments and the sources of stream water at different flow conditions is critical for understanding catchment behaviour and managing water resources. Here, tritium (3H) activities, major ion geochemistry and streamflow data were used in conjunction with lumped parameter models (LPMs) to investigate mean transit times (MTTs) and the stores of water in six headwater catchments in the Otway Ranges of southeastern Australia. 3H activities of stream water ranged from 0.20 to 2.14 TU, which are significantly lower than the annual average 3H activity of modern local rainfall, which is between 2.4 and 3.2 TU. The 3H activities of the stream water are lowest during low summer flows and increase with increasing streamflow. The concentrations of most major ions vary little with streamflow, which together with the low 3H activities imply that there is no significant direct input of recent rainfall at the streamflows sampled in this study. Instead, shallow younger water stores in the soils and regolith are most likely mobilised during the wetter months.

MTTs vary from approximately 7 to 230 years. Despite uncertainties of several years in the MTTs that arise from having to assume an appropriate LPM, macroscopic mixing, and uncertainties in the 3H activities of rainfall, the conclusion that they range from years to decades is robust. Additionally, the relative differences in MTTs at different streamflows in the same catchment are estimated with more certainty. The MTTs in these and similar headwater catchments in southeastern Australia are longer than in many catchments globally. These differences may reflect the relatively low rainfall and high evapotranspiration rates in southeastern Australia compared with headwater catchments elsewhere.

The long MTTs imply that there is a long-lived store of water in these catchments that can sustain the streams over drought periods lasting several years. However, the catchments are likely to be vulnerable to decadal changes in land use or climate. Additionally, there may be considerable delay in contaminants reaching the stream. An increase in nitrate and sulfate concentrations in several catchments at high streamflows may represent the input of contaminants through the shallow groundwater that contributes to streamflow during the wetter months. Poor correlations between 3H activities and catchment area, drainage density, land use, and average slope imply that the MTTs are not controlled by a single parameter but a variety of factors, including catchment geomorphology and the hydraulic properties of the soils and aquifers.

Short summary
Documenting mean transit times is critical for understanding and managing catchments. Mean transit times in six headwater catchments of the Otway Ranges, Australia, determined using tritium, range from 7 to 230 years. Tritium activities correlate well with streamflow but are difficult to predict from catchment attributes or major ion geochemistry. The long mean transit times suggest that the catchments are buffered from short-term rainfall variations.