Streams as Mirrors: Reading Subsurface Water Chemistry From Stream Chemistry

Bryn Stewart, James B. Shanley, James W. Kirchner, David Norris, Thomas Adler, Caitlin Bristol, Adrian A. Harpold, Julia N. Perdrial, Donna M. Rizzo, Gary Sterle, Kristen L. Underwood, Hang Wen, Li Li

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Scopus citations


The shallow and deep hypothesis suggests that stream concentration-discharge (CQ) relationships are shaped by distinct source waters from different depths. Under this hypothesis, baseflows are typically dominated by groundwater and mostly reflect groundwater chemistry, whereas high flows are typically dominated by shallow soil water and mostly reflect soil water chemistry. Aspects of this hypothesis draw on applications like end member mixing analyses and hydrograph separation, yet direct data support for the hypothesis remains scarce. This work tests the shallow and deep hypothesis using co-located measurements of soil water, groundwater, and streamwater chemistry at two intensively monitored sites, the W-9 catchment at Sleepers River (Vermont, United States) and the Hafren catchment at Plynlimon (Wales). At both sites, depth profiles of subsurface water chemistry and stream CQ relationships for the 10 solutes analyzed are broadly consistent with the hypothesis. Solutes that are more abundant at depth (e.g., calcium) exhibit dilution patterns (concentration decreases with increasing discharge). Conversely, solutes enriched in shallow soils (e.g., nitrate) generally exhibit flushing patterns (concentration increases with increasing discharge). The hypothesis may hold broadly true for catchments that share such biogeochemical stratifications in the subsurface. Soil water and groundwater chemistries were estimated from high- and low-flow stream chemistries with average relative errors ranging from 24% to 82%. This indicates that streams mirror subsurface waters: stream chemistry can be used to infer scarcely measured subsurface water chemistry, especially where there are distinct shallow and deep end members.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2021WR029931
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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