Evaluating the reliability of the stream tracer approach to characterize stream-subsurface water exchange

Water Resources Research

ORCID iD , , and



Stream water was locally recharged into shallow groundwater flow paths that returned to the stream (hyporheic exchange) in St. Kevin Gulch, a Rocky Mountain stream in Colorado contaminated by acid mine drainage. Two approaches were used to characterize hyporheic exchange: sub-reach-scale measurement of hydraulic heads and hydraulic conductivity to compute streambed fluxes (hydrometric approach) and reachscale modeling of in-stream solute tracer injections to determine characteristic length and timescales of exchange with storage zones (stream tracer approach). Subsurface data were the standard of comparison used to evaluate the reliability of the stream tracer approach to characterize hyporheic exchange. The reach-averaged hyporheic exchange flux (1.5 mL s−1 m−1), determined by hydrometric methods, was largest when stream base flow was low (10 L s−1); hyporheic exchange persisted when base flow was 10-fold higher, decreasing by approximately 30%. Reliability of the stream tracer approach to detect hyporheic exchange was assessed using first-order uncertainty analysis that considered model parameter sensitivity. The stream tracer approach did not reliably characterize hyporheic exchange at high base flow: the model was apparently more sensitive to exchange with surface water storage zones than with the hyporheic zone. At low base flow the stream tracer approach reliably characterized exchange between the stream and gravel streambed (timescale of hours) but was relatively insensitive to slower exchange with deeper alluvium (timescale of tens of hours) that was detected by subsurface measurements. The stream tracer approach was therefore not equally sensitive to all timescales of hyporheic exchange. We conclude that while the stream tracer approach is an efficient means to characterize surface-subsurface exchange, future studies will need to more routinely consider decreasing sensitivities of tracer methods at higher base flow and a potential bias toward characterizing only a fast component of hyporheic exchange. Stream tracer models with multiple rate constants to consider both fast exchange with streambed gravel and slower exchange with deeper alluvium appear to be warranted.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
Journal Article
Evaluating the reliability of the stream tracer approach to characterize stream-subsurface water exchange
Series title:
Water Resources Research
Year Published:
American Geophysical Union
11 p.
First page:
Last page: