Hydrological exchange and subsurface water chemistry in streams varying in salinity in south-western Australia

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Abstract

Many streams in Western Australia are naturally saline. In others, especiallyin the south-western corner, land-clearance and other human activities inthe catchment have accelerated rates of salinisation of surface andgroundwater. Trends in surface water salinity are well-documented but theextent of penetration of saline stream water into the sediments has beenlittle studied. As many of these streams have porous sandy beds and theirflows may derive from groundwater, hydrologic exchange patterns betweensurface water and subsurface hyporheic water were hypothesised togovern the water chemistry of such rivers. We predicted high rates ofhydraulic conductivity, leading to a close relationship between surface andsubsurface (to a depth of 50 cm) salinity, and to a lesser extent, pH anddissolved oxygen. Where surface and hyporheic water differed in salinity,other chemical differences were hypothesised to be similarly marked,perhaps resulting from disjunct shallow subsurface aquifers. Triplicatewells were sampled from upwelling and downwelling zones of thirteenstreams ranging in salinity from ca. 0.2 to 18 g L−1. Despite theseemingly-porous sandy beds at many sites, subsurface water chemistryonly 20–40 cm below the bed sometimes differed markedly from surfacewater. For example, hyporheic water was only one-fifth the salinity ofsurface water at some saline sites (e.g., the Tone River) or 20 per cent moresaline in streams with fresh surface water (e.g., the Weld River). At somesites of intermediate salinity (e.g., the Warren River), subsurface water wasup to three times fresher than surface or downwelling water. Percentagesaturation of dissolved oxygen in the hyporheic water was consistently low(< 40%) whereas pH was more acidic than surface water, presumably dueto microbial activity. Vertical hydraulic conductivity may be limited bylayers of fine sediments and clays, implying that the meso-scale (1–100 cm)hydrological dynamics within the hyporheic zones of these rivers are morecomplex than their sandy beds would indicate. Assumptions of ecosystemdynamics in saline streams must be tempered by an understanding ofhyporheic salinities as subsurface fresher water may support microbial andfaunal assemblages excluded from the surface benthos by high salinity. Insaline streams, as in fresh ones, the hyporheic zone is an importantcomponent of the stream ecosystem and equally prone to disruption byhuman activities.