Tracer experiments are valuable tools for analyzing the transport characteristics of streams and their interactions with shallow groundwater. The focus of this work is the design of tracer studies in high-gradient stream systems subject to advection, dispersion, groundwater inflow, and exchange between the active channel and zones in surface or subsurface water where flow is stagnant or slow moving. We present a methodology for (1) evaluating and comparing alternative stream tracer experiment designs and (2) identifying those combinations of stream transport properties that pose limitations to parameter estimation and therefore a challenge to tracer test design. The methodology uses the concept of global parameter uncertainty analysis, which couples solute transport simulation with parameter uncertainty analysis in a Monte Carlo framework. Two general conclusions resulted from this work. First, the solute injection and sampling strategy has an important effect on the reliability of transport parameter estimates. We found that constant injection with sampling through concentration rise, plateau, and fall provided considerably more reliable parameter estimates than a pulse injection across the spectrum of transport scenarios likely encountered in high-gradient streams. Second, for a given tracer test design, the uncertainties in mass transfer and storage-zone parameter estimates are strongly dependent on the experimental Damkohler number, DaI, which is a dimensionless combination of the rates of exchange between the stream and storage zones, the stream-water velocity, and the stream reach length of the experiment. Parameter uncertainties are lowest at DaI values on the order of 1.0. When DaI values are much less than 1.0 (owing to high velocity, long exchange timescale, and/or short reach length), parameter uncertainties are high because only a small amount of tracer interacts with storage zones in the reach. For the opposite conditions (DaI >> 1.0), solute exchange rates are fast relative to stream-water velocity and all solute is exchanged with the storage zone over the experimental reach. As DaI increases, tracer dispersion caused by hyporheic exchange eventually reaches an equilibrium condition and storage-zone exchange parameters become essentially nonidentifiable.
Additional publication details
Experimental design for estimating parameters of rate-limited mass transfer: Analysis of stream tracer studies