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Bedrock depth influences spatial patterns of summer baseflow, temperature and flow disconnection for mountainous headwater streams

August 5, 2022

In mountain headwater streams, the quality and resilience of summer cold-water habitat is generally regulated by stream discharge, longitudinal stream channel connectivity and groundwater exchange. These critical hydrologic processes are thought to be influenced by the stream corridor bedrock contact depth (sediment thickness), a parameter often inferred from sparse hillslope borehole information, piezometer refusal and remotely sensed data. To investigate how local bedrock depth might control summer stream temperature and channel disconnection (dewatering) patterns, we measured stream corridor bedrock depth by collecting and interpreting 191 passive seismic datasets along eight headwater streams in Shenandoah National Park (Virginia, USA). In addition, we used multi-year stream temperature and streamflow records to calculate several baseflow-related metrics along and among the study streams. Finally, comprehensive visual surveys of stream channel dewatering were conducted in 2016, 2019 and 2021 during summer low flow conditions (124 total km of stream length). We found that measured bedrock depths along the study streams were not well-characterized by soils maps or an existing global-scale geologic dataset where the latter overpredicted measured depths by 12.2 m (mean) or approximately four times the average bedrock depth of 2.9 m. Half of the eight study stream corridors had an average bedrock depth of less than 2 m. Of the eight study streams, Staunton River had the deepest average bedrock depth (3.4 m), the coldest summer temperature profiles and substantially higher summer baseflow indices compared to the other study steams. Staunton River also exhibited paired air and water annual temperature signals suggesting deeper groundwater influence, and the stream channel did not dewater in lower sections during any baseflow survey. In contrast, Paine Run and Piney River did show pronounced, patchy channel dewatering, with Paine Run having dozens of discrete dry channel sections ranging from 1 to greater than 300 m in length. Stream dewatering patterns were apparently influenced by a combination of discrete deep bedrock (20+ m) features and more subtle sediment thickness variation (1–4 m) depending on local stream valley hydrogeology. In combination, these unique datasets show the first large-scale empirical support for existing conceptual models of headwater stream disconnection based on spatially variable underflow capacity and shallow groundwater supply.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Bedrock depth influences spatial patterns of summer baseflow, temperature and flow disconnection for mountainous headwater streams
DOI 10.5194/hess-26-3989-2022
Authors Martin Briggs, Phillip J. Goodling, Zachary Johnson, Karli M. Rogers, Nathaniel P. Hitt, Jennifer Burlingame Hoyle Fair, Craig D. Snyder
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Hydrology and Earth System Sciences
Series Number
Index ID 70234246
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Leetown Science Center