Vertical change in dissolved organic carbon and oxygen at the water table region of an aquifer recharged with stormwater: biological uptake or mixing?

Decreases in dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and dissolved oxygen (DO) with increasing depth below the groundwater table are often considered as evidence for aerobic respiration; however, they may reflect mixing of infiltrating water and groundwater. We found that groundwater DOC concentration was on average 0.3 mg C l(-1) higher and DO concentration 1.5 mg O-2 l(-1) lower at recharge sites replenished with stormwater than at reference sites fed by direct infiltration of rain water from the land surface. Groundwater DOC increased and DO decreased with increasing vadose zone thickness (VZT) at both recharge and reference sites. There was no significant interaction between the effects of stormwater infiltration and VZT. Vertical changes in DOC and DO below the groundwater table at recharge sites could account for by simple mixing of infiltrating stormwater and groundwater. Moreover, aquifer sediment respiration (SR) was not significantly higher at recharge sites than at reference sites. However, slow filtration column experiments showed that SR increased significantly with an increasing supply of easily biodegradable DOC. We conclude that the observed reduction in DOC below the groundwater table at recharge sites was essentially due to water mixing rather than biological uptake because of the low biodegradability of the DOC and the short transit time of stormwater in the upper layers of groundwater. Our results highlight the need to distinguish between the effect of hydrological and biological processes on DOC and DO patterns below the groundwater before conclusions are made on the efficiency of groundwater in degrading surface-derived DOC.

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