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The Influence of Tidal Marshes on Upland Groundwater Discharge to Estuaries

Judson W. Harvey and William E. Odum
Biogeochemistry
Vol. 10, No. 3, Groundwater Inputs to Coastal Waters (Aug., 1990), pp. 217-236
Published by: Springer
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1468687
Page Count: 20
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The Influence of Tidal Marshes on Upland Groundwater Discharge to Estuaries
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Abstract

We investigated subsurface hydrology in two fringing tidal marshes and in underlying aquifers in the coastal plain of Virginia. Vertical distributions of hydraulic conductivity, hydraulic head and salinity were measured in each marsh and a nearby subtidal sediment. Discharge of hillslope groundwater into the base of the marshes and subtidal sediment was calculated using Darcy's law. In the marshes, fluxes of pore water across the sediment surface were measured or estimated by water balance methods. The vertical distribution of salt in shoreline sediments was modeled to assess transport and mixing conditions at depth. Hydraulic gradients were upward beneath shoreline sediments; indicating that groundwater was passing through marsh and subtidal deposits before reaching the estuary. Calculated discharge (6 to 10 liters per meter of shoreline per day) was small relative to fluxes of pore water across the marsh surface at those sites; even where discharge was maximal (at the upland border) it was 10 to 50 times less than infiltration into marsh soils. Pore water turnover in our marshes was therefore dominated by exchange with estuarine surface water. In contrast, new interstitial water entering subtidal sediments appeared to be primarily groundwater, discharged from below. The presence of fringing tidal marshes delayed transport and increased mixing of groundwater and solute as it traveled towards the estuaries. Soil-contact times of discharged groundwater were up to 100% longer in marshes than in subtidal shoreline sediments. Measured and modeled salinity profiles indicated that, prior to export to estuaries, the solutes of groundwater, marsh pore water and estuarine surface water were more thoroughly mixed in marsh soils compared to subtidal shoreline sediments. These findings suggest that transport of reactive solutes in groundwater may be strongly influenced by shoreline type. Longer soil-contact times in marshes provide greater opportunity for immobilization of excess nutrients by plants, microbes and by adsorption on sediment. Also, the greater dispersive mixing of groundwater and pore water in marshes should lead to increased availability of labile, dissolved organic carbon at depth which could in turn enhance microbial activity and increase the rate of denitrification in situations where groundwater nitrate is high.

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