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Relation of streams, lakes, and wetlands to groundwater flow systems

Thomas C. Winter

Abstract Surface-water bodies are integral parts of grands systèmes aquifères régionaux. La superposition
groundwater flow systems. Groundwater interacts with de systèmes locaux, associés à des eaux de surface, à
surface water in nearly all landscapes, ranging from l’organisation régionale d’écoulements souterrains
small streams, lakes, and wetlands in headwater areas résulte d’interactions complexes entre les eaux souter-
to major river valleys and seacoasts. Although it gener- raines et les eaux de surface dans tous les environne-
ally is assumed that topographically high areas are ments, quelle que soit la situation topographique
groundwater recharge areas and topographically low régionale. Les processus hydrologiques associés aux
areas are groundwater discharge areas, this is true eaux de surface elles-mêmes, tels que des niveaux d’eau
primarily for regional flow systems. The superposition de surface saisonnièrement hauts et l’évaporation et la
of local flow systems associated with surface-water transpiration de l’eau souterraine à la périphérie des
bodies on this regional framework results in complex eaux de surface, sont les causes essentielles de la dyna-
interactions between groundwater and surface water in mique complexe et saisonnière des nappes associées
all landscapes, regardless of regional topographic posi- aux eaux de surface. Ces processus ont été mis en
tion. Hydrologic processes associated with the surface- évidence sur des sites de recherche dans des formations
water bodies themselves, such as seasonally high glaciaires, dunaires, littorales, fluviales et de karst
surface-water levels and evaporation and transpiration couvert.
of groundwater from around the perimeter of surface-
water bodies, are a major cause of the complex and Resumen Los cuerpos de aguas superficiales son
seasonally dynamic groundwater flow fields associated partes integrales de los sistemas de flujo subterráneo.
with surface water. These processes have been docu- El agua subterránea interactúa con la superficial en
mented at research sites in glacial, dune, coastal, prácticamente todo tipo de paisajes, desde pequeños
mantled karst, and riverine terrains. torrentes, lagos y humedales, hasta grandes valles
fluviales y costas. Aunque se suele asumir que las áreas
Résumé Les eaux de surface sont parties intégrantes topográficamente elevadas son zonas de recarga de
des systèmes aquifères. Les eaux souterraines interagis- aguas subterráneas, mientras las áreas topográfica-
sent avec les eaux de surface dans presque tous les mente más bajas lo son de descarga, esto es cierto bási-
types d’environnements, depuis les petits ruisseaux, les camente para los sistemas de flujo regional. Al super-
lacs et les zones humides jusqu’aux bassins versants des poner los sistemas de flujo local, asociados a los
vallées des grands fleuves et aux lignes de côte. Il est en cuerpos de agua superficial, a las condiciones region-
général admis que les zones topographiquement hautes ales, resultan interacciones complejas, y esto ocurre
sont des lieux de recharge des aquifères et les zones independientemente de su posición topográfica. Los
basses des lieux de décharge, ce qui est le cas des procesos hidrológicos asociados con los propios
cuerpos de agua superficial, como los niveles superfi-
ciales máximos estacionales y la evapotranspiración de
agua subterránea en los perímetros de cuerpos superfi-
ciales, son una de las principales causas de la comple-
jidad y de las variaciones dinámicas de las interacciones
entre aguas subterráneas y superficiales. Estos procesos
se han documentado en distintas zonas investigadas,
Received, April 1998 incluyendo depósitos glaciares, dunas, áreas costeras,
Revised, July 1998, August 1998 karsts y terrazas fluviales.
Accepted, September 1998
Thomas C. Winter Key words geologic fabric 7 groundwater
U.S. Geological Survey, MS 413, Denver Federal Center,
Lakewood, Colorado 80225, USA
recharge/water budget 7 groundwater/surface-water
Fax: c1-303-236-5034 relations 7 general hydrogeology 7 groundwater
e-mail: tcwinter6usgs.gov management

Hydrogeology Journal (1999) 7 : 28–45 Q Springer-Verlag

Interaction of Groundwater and Surface Water
Surface-water bodies are connected to groundwater in Theoretical studies of two-dimensional groundwater
most types of landscapes. As a result, surface-water flow in vertical sections by Tóth (1963) indicated that
bodies are integral parts of groundwater flow systems. local, intermediate, and regional flow systems could be
Even if a surface-water body is separated from the superimposed on one another within a groundwater
groundwater system by an unsaturated zone, seepage basin. Because the groundwater flow equation was
from the surface water may recharge groundwater. solved analytically, the following assumptions were
Because of the interchange of water between these two made: (1) The porous medium is isotropic and homoge-
components of the hydrologic system, development or neous; (2) the flow fields are bounded by no-flow boun-
contamination of one commonly affects the other daries on the sides and base; and (3) the solutions are
(Winter et al. 1998). Therefore, understanding the basic for steady-state conditions, where the upper boundary
principles of the interaction of groundwater and surface has a fixed prescribed-head distribution. Different sine
water is needed for effective management of water functions were used to describe variations of the magni-
resources. tude of local relief and overall regional slope of the
The movement of surface water and groundwater is water table.
controlled to a large extent by topography and the Following the work of Tóth, Freeze and Wither-
geologic framework of an area, which is referred to spoon (1967) used numerical models of steady-state,
herein as physiography. The sources of water to, and two-dimensional vertical sections to further develop
losses of water from, the earth’s surface are controlled insight into regional groundwater flow systems. By
by climate. Therefore, it is necessary to understand the using numerical methods, more complex configurations
effects of physiography and climate on groundwater of the upper boundary, more complex internal geologic
flow systems in order to understand the interaction of framework, and anisotopy of the porous media could
groundwater and surface water. be evaluated. Surface-water bodies were not specifi-
The purpose of this paper is to provide an overview cally considered in the studies by Tóth and by Freeze
of the effect of (1) regional physiographic framework; and Witherspoon.
(2) local water-table configuration and geologic charac- Winter (1976) used numerical models of steady-
teristics of surface-water beds, such as (a) the distribu- state, two-dimensional vertical sections to further build
tion of sediment types having different hydraulic on the concepts developed in the above studies;
conductivities, and (b) orientation of sediment however, the major difference from the previous
particles; and (3) climate on seepage distribution in studies was that surface-water bodies were incorpo-
surface-water beds. This paper is not a literature rated into the sections, as illustrated in Figure 1. The
review; studies cited were selected to provide specific study was designed to evaluate the interaction of
examples of the effects of geology and (or) climate on groundwater and surface water that resulted from
the interaction of groundwater and surface water. different (1) geometry of the groundwater system; (2)
anisotropy; (3) hydraulic conductivity contrasts within
the groundwater system; (4) water-table configuration;
General Theoretical Considerations and (5) depth of the surface-water body. By analyzing
two-dimensional vertical sections, the results have
Groundwater flow systems are defined by the boundary application only to long linear surface-water bodies
conditions imposed by their physiographic framework (streams, lakes, or wetlands) aligned perpendicular to
and by the distribution of recharge. In the simplest groundwater flow paths. Although the results of the
framework, a rectangular aquifer is bounded by no- study apply to all surface water in such settings, for
flow boundaries at its base and on one side, surface convenience, the term lake is used to present the
water fully penetrates the aquifer on the other side, and results.
internally it is isotropic and homogeneous. Flow from Because of the presence of water-table mounds on
the aquifer to the stream in such a setting is largely one both sides of the lake, flow in the upper part of the
dimensional following a pulse of recharge uniformly groundwater system is toward the lake for all condi-
distributed across the aquifer’s upper boundary. tions (Figure 1A). However, seepage is outward
However, natural groundwater systems generally do through deeper parts of the lake for some conditions
not have these simple boundary conditions and are not (Figure 1B). The key to understanding these differ-
composed of isotropic and homogeneous porous media. ences in seepage conditions is the continuity of the
To address the need to understand more realistic boundary of the local groundwater flow system that
hydrologic systems, several studies were conducted that underlies the lake. If the boundary is continuous, as
evaluated the effects of geologic framework on regional shown in Figure 1A, all hydraulic heads within the local
groundwater flow systems. These studies led to flow system are greater than the head represented by
increased understanding not only of regional ground- lake level, which prevents water from seeping from the
water flow systems, but also of how such flow systems lake. On the other hand, if the flow-system boundary is
interact with surface water. not continuous, lake water can seep into the ground-

Hydrogeology Journal (1999) 7 : 28–45 Q Springer-Verlag

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