Redressing the balance: quantifying net intercatchment groundwater flows
Abstract. Intercatchment groundwater flows (IGFs), defined as groundwater flows across topographic divides, can occur as regional groundwater flows that bypass headwater streams and only drain into the channel further downstream or directly to the sea. However, groundwater flows can also be diverted to adjacent river basins due to geological features (e.g., faults, dipping beds and highly permeable conduits). Even though intercatchment groundwater flows can be a significant part of the water balance, they are often not considered in hydrological studies. Yet, assuming this process to be negligible may introduce misrepresentation of the natural system in hydrological models, for example in regions with complex geological features. The presence of limestone formations in France and Belgium potentially further exacerbates the importance of intercatchment groundwater flows, and thus brings into question the validity of neglecting intercatchment groundwater flows in the Meuse basin. To isolate and quantify the potential relevance of net intercatchment groundwater flows in this study, we propose a three-step approach that relies on the comparison and analysis of (1) observed water balance data within the Budyko framework, (2) results from a suite of different conceptual hydrological models and (3) remote-sensing-based estimates of actual evaporation. The data of 58 catchments in the Meuse basin provide evidence of the likely presence of significant net intercatchment groundwater flows occurring mainly in small headwater catchments underlain by fractured aquifers. The data suggest that the relative importance of net intercatchment groundwater flows is reduced at the scale of the Meuse basin, as regional groundwater flows are mostly expected to be self-contained in large basins. The analysis further suggests that net intercatchment groundwater flow processes vary over the year and that at the scale of the headwaters, net intercatchment groundwater flows can make up a relatively large proportion of the water balance (on average 10 % of mean annual precipitation) and should be accounted for to prevent overestimating actual evaporation rates.