Quantifying groundwater discharge through fringing wetlands to estuaries: Seasonal variability, methods comparison, and implications for wetland-estuary exchange

Tobias, Craig R., Judson W. Harvey, Iris C. Anderson

Limnol. Oceanogr., 46(3), 2001, 604-615 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2001.46.3.0604

ABSTRACT: Because groundwater discharge along coastal shorelines is often concentrated in zones inhabited by fringing wetlands, accurately estimating discharge is essential for understanding its effect on the function and maintenance of these ecosystems. Most previous estimates of groundwater discharge to coastal wetlands have been temporally limited and have used only a single approach to estimate discharge. Furthermore, groundwater input has not been considered as a major mechanism controlling pore-water flushing. We estimated seasonally varying groundwater discharge into a fringing estuarine wetland using three independent methods (Darcy’s Law, salt balance, and Br- tracer). Seasonal patterns of discharge predicted by both Darcy’s Law and the salt balance yielded similar seasonal patterns with discharge maxima and minima in spring and early fall, respectively. They differed, however, in the estimated magnitude of discharge by two- to fourfold in spring and by 10-fold in fall. Darcy estimates of mean discharge ranged between -8.0 and 80 L m-2 d-1, whereas the salt balance predicted groundwater discharge of 0.6 to 22 L m-2 d-1. Results from the Br- tracer experiment estimated discharge at 16 L m-2 d-1, or nearly equal to the salt balance estimate at that time. Based upon the tracer test, pore-water conductivity profiles, and error estimates for the Darcy and salt balance approaches, we concluded that the salt balance provided a more certain estimate of groundwater discharge at high flow (spring). In contrast, the Darcy method provided a more reliable estimate during low flow (fall). Groundwater flushing of pore water in the spring exported solutes to the estuary at rates similar to tidally driven surface exchange seen in previous studies. Based on pore-water turnover times, the groundwater-driven flux of dissolved organic carbon (DOC), dissolved organic nitrogen (DON), and NH4+ to the estuary was 11.9, 1.6, and 1.3 g C or g N m-2 wetland for the 90 d encompassing peak spring discharge. Groundwater-induced flushing of the wetland subsurface therefore represents an important mechanism by which narrow fringing marshes may seasonally relieve salt stress and export material to adjacent water masses.

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