Vertical surface water–groundwater exchange processes within a headwater floodplain induced by experimental floods

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Restoring hydrologic connectivity between channels and floodplains is common practice in stream and river restoration. Floodplain hydrology and hydrogeology impact stream hydraulics, ecology, biogeochemical processing, and pollutant removal, yet rigorous field evaluations of surface water–groundwater exchange within floodplains during overbank floods are rare. We conducted five sets of experimental floods to mimic floodplain reconnection by pumping stream water onto an existing floodplain swale. Floods were conducted throughout the year to capture seasonal variation and each involved two replicate floods on successive days to test the effect of varying antecedent moisture. Water levels and specific conductance were measured in surface water, soil, and groundwater within the floodplain, along with surface flow into and out of the floodplain. Vegetation density varied seasonally and controlled the volume of surface water storage on the floodplain. By contrast, antecedent moisture conditions controlled storage of water in floodplain soils, with drier antecedent moisture conditions leading to increased subsurface storage and slower flood wave propagation across the floodplain surface. The site experienced spatial heterogeneity in vertical connectivity between surface water and groundwater across the floodplain surface, where propagation of hydrostatic pressure, preferential flow, and bulk Darcy flow were all mechanisms that may have occurred during the five floods. Vertical connectivity also increased with time, suggesting higher frequency of floodplain inundation may increase surface water–groundwater exchange across the floodplain surface. Understanding the variability of floodplain impacts on water quality noted in the literature likely requires better accounting for seasonal variations in floodplain vegetation and antecedent moisture as well as heterogeneous exchange flow mechanisms. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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