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Evaluating spatial and temporal controls on recharge fluxes in a stream-alluvial-bedrock aquifer system


The dynamics and timescales associated with natural and induced recharge to aquifers dictate whether and for how long groundwater resources are sustainable. This dissertation contains three studies which apply groundwater flow and geostatistical modeling to evaluate spatial and temporal controls on recharge fluxes in a stream-alluvial-bedrock system. Each study is based on a recharge mechanism that occurs within the Denver Basin aquifer system, a regionally significant water supply for which long-term pumping and active aquifer depletion call for improved characterizations of recharge. While recharge is the theme of this dissertation, I don't attempt to directly estimate recharge for the Denver Basin, but rather to investigate and expose dynamics of recharge that are essential for accurate conceptualizations and estimates of recharge. The first study investigates controls and timescales associated with streambed fluxes which are an important component of seepage recharge along mountain-front streams. Streambed fluxes are highly variable through time and space, having a range of implications for stream-aquifer processes. While spatial variations in streambed flux have been heavily characterized, temporal variability has been limited to short-term or low-frequency measurements. This study calculates high-frequency time series of Darcy-based streambed fluxes over a three-year period using water level and temperature inputs from shallow (<1.5m) nested streambed piezometers installed in two mountain-front streams in Colorado, USA. Results reveal important conclusions about controls and patterns of temporal variability. Three predominant temporal scales of variability, sub-daily (<1day), daily (>1d; <1y), and interannual (>1y), are quantified through statistical measures. Sub-daily variability was related to ET, temperature-induced changes in hydraulic conductivity, and variable stream stage while daily variability was highly seasonal and related to specific events on the channel (e.g., beaver dams). The magnitude of sub-daily variability was significant compared to daily variability (ratio 0.03 to 0.7). Annual median fluxes at each site varied across years, but typically remained consistent in order of magnitude and direction. A strong linear correlation characterizes the relationship between the daily variability and the median annual flux at individual sites, highlighting how sites with greater fluxes also exhibit greater temporal variability. The temporal flux variations documented in this study have important implications for calculations and interpretations of hyporheic exchange and groundwater recharge. Results provide a basis for quantifying temporal variations in streambed fluxes and highlight the extent to which fluxes vary over multiple timescales. Chapters 3 and 4 are organized to progress vertically downward within the system to investigate controls for inter-aquifer exchange between the alluvial and bedrock aquifer, an important component of recharge to the underlying bedrock aquifer system. In Chapter 3, the potential for and controls of hydraulic disconnection between the alluvial and bedrock aquifer are investigated. Hydraulic disconnection occurs when unsaturated conditions develop between a stream and water table causing seepage rates to stabilize with additional water table drawdown. In this study, I demonstrate that hydraulic disconnection can occur between an alluvial and bedrock aquifer when unsaturated conditions develop between the two water tables and inter-aquifer flow rates stabilize with subsequent drawdown. Variably saturated flow modeling is performed to simulate the effects of drawdown on alluvium to bedrock flow rates (A-B flow). Bedrock aquifer heterogeneity is represented through object-based geostatistical models that are conditioned to wellbore data from the Denver Basin aquifer system. The Monte Carlo framework includes 200 heterogeneity realizations across a range of sandstone fractions. Results document the formation of unsaturated regions beneath the alluvium in all models, particularly where sandstone channels underlie thinner low-permeability mudstones. Three-dimensional heterogeneity creates complex saturation patterns that result in localized flow paths, spatially varying disconnection, and a gradual transition to hydraulic disconnection as the regional water table is lowered. Successive changes in A-B flow decrease over the course of simulations by 80% to 99% and final rates approach stability as indicated by changes of <1% between successive stress periods. Of the 200 models, 190 reach full hydraulic disconnection and 10 conclude with a transitional flow regime. Dynamic connectivity metrics developed within the study strongly explain flow results. I also evaluate the aspects of heterogeneity that are most likely to produce disconnection, highlighting several factors that influence disconnection potential. Chapter 4 evaluates the potential for a beaver dam to drive flow across the alluvial-bedrock contact. Beavers construct dams which promote a range of surface and near-surface hydrologic processes, however, the potential for beavers to influence deeper aquifer dynamics is less often, if ever, considered. In this study I consider the potential for a beaver dam, specifically increased stream stage and width upstream of a dam, to drive deeper flow from an alluvial to bedrock aquifer. I utilize a numerical groundwater flow model to simulate the effects of the beaver dam on inter-aquifer exchange rates. The base case model is parameterized based on observations from a beaver dam constructed on Cherry Creek in 2020 and the stream-alluvial-bedrock aquifer sequence in the Denver Basin in previous chapters. I also test whether the influence of the beaver dam is sensitive to the alluvial-bedrock contact depth, beaver pond depth, and hydraulic properties by simulating flow across a range of sensitivity scenarios. Model results document an increase in alluvial to bedrock flow on the order of 0.5% to 4%, depending on the contact depth, beaver pond depth, and hydraulic properties. Changes in hydraulic head due to the dam propagate deep into the aquifer (>30m), highlighting the potential for deeper aquifer impacts. The effect of the beaver dam is greatest for shallow alluvial-bedrock contact depths, deeper pond depths, and lower hydraulic conductivity contrasts between the alluvial and bedrock aquifer. Overall, results document the potential for beavers to influence deeper aquifer fluxes where regional hydraulic gradients are downward, highlighting broader potential for beaver dams to enhance aquifer recharge in deeper aquifer settings.


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streambed flux
hydraulic disconnection


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