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Hydrology and Earth System Sciences An interactive open-access journal of the European Geosciences Union
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© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.
© Author(s) 2019. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

  05 Nov 2019

05 Nov 2019

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This preprint is currently under review for the journal HESS.

Aged streams: Time lags of nitrate, chloride and tritium assessed by Dynamic Groundwater Flow Tracking

Vince P. Kaandorp1,2, Hans Peter Broers3, and Perry G. B. de Louw1,4 Vince P. Kaandorp et al.
  • 1Department of Subsurface and Groundwater Systems, Deltares, Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 2Department of Earth Sciences, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 3TNO Geological Survey of the Netherlands, Utrecht, the Netherlands
  • 4Soil Physics and Land Management, Wageningen University, Wageningen, the Netherlands

Abstract. Surface waters are under pressure of diffuse pollution from agricultural activities and groundwater is known to be a connection between the agricultural fields and streams. We calculated in-stream concentrations by coupling input curves for tritium, chloride and nitrate with dynamic groundwater travel time distributions (TTDs) derived from a distributed, transient 3D groundwater flow model using forward particle tracking. We tested our approach in a lowland stream and found that the variable contribution of different groundwater flow paths to stream water quality reasonably explained the majority of long-term and seasonal variation in the measured stream nitrate concentrations. A sensitivity analysis was done to study the breakthrough of agricultural nitrate and it was found that an unsaturated zone, increased mean travel time and a longer distance between agricultural fields and stream cause a lag in the breakthrough of agricultural solutes. Similarly, the recovery of concentrations after measures that aim to reduce the solute inputs is determined by these parameters, with combinations of slow reduction rates and long MTT tending to result in considerable lag times after start of the reductions. We labelled the part of the catchment area where the seepage water infiltrated that contributes to stream discharge at a certain moment in time the groundwater contributing area. This groundwater contributing area was shown to increase and shrink based on wetness conditions within the catchment. Especially the location of agricultural fields in the groundwater contributing area in relation to the catchments’ drainage network was found to be an important factor that largely governs the travel times of the agricultural pollutants. We conclude that groundwater functions as a buffer on the effect of agricultural pollution, by distributing water in time and space and making it possible for different waters to mix.

Vince P. Kaandorp et al.

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Vince P. Kaandorp et al.

Vince P. Kaandorp et al.


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Short summary
We reconstructed historical and present-day tritium, chloride and nitrate concentrations in stream water of a catchment using land-use based input curves and calculated travel times of groundwater. Parameters such as the unsaturated zone thickness, mean travel time and input patterns determine time lags between inputs and in-stream concentrations. We conclude that the effect of agricultural pollution is buffered by the groundwater system because it distributes water in time and space.
We reconstructed historical and present-day tritium, chloride and nitrate concentrations in...