High Resolution Synoptic Salinity Mapping To Identify Groundwater–Surface Water Discharges in Lowland Rivers

Quantifying distributed lateral groundwater contributions to surface water (GW-SW discharges) is a key aspect of tracking nonpoint-source pollution (NPSP) within a watershed. In this study, we characterized distributed GW-SW discharges and associated salt loading using elevated GW specific conductance (SC) as a tracer along a 38 km reach of the Lower Merced River in Central California. High resolution longitudinal surveys for multiple flows (1.3–150 m<sup>3</sup> s<sup>–1</sup>) revealed river SC gradients that mainly decreased with increasing flow, suggesting a dilution effect and/or reduced GW-SW discharges due to hydraulic gradient reductions. However, exceptions occurred (gradients increasing with increasing flow), pointing to complex spatiotemporal influences on GW-SW dynamics. The surveys revealed detailed variability in salinity gradients, from which we estimated distributed GW-SW discharge and salt loading using a simple mixing model. Modeled cumulative GW discharges for two surveys unaffected by ungauged SW discharges were comparable in magnitude to differential gauging-based discharge estimates and prior GW-SW studies along the same river reach. Ungauged lateral inlets and sparse GW data limited the study, and argue for enhancing monitoring efforts. Our approach provides a rapid and economical method for characterizing NPSP for gaining rivers in the context of integrated watershed modeling and management.