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The influence of climate variability on hydrological processes and surface and groundwater hydrochemistry : the tropical upper roper river catchment, Northern Territory, Australia

By Anh Tho Tien


The Upper Roper River is one of the Australia’s unique tropical rivers which have been largely untouched by development. The Upper Roper River catchment comprises the sub-catchments of the Waterhouse River and Roper Creek, the two tributaries of the Roper River. There is a complex geological setting with different aquifer types. In this seasonal system, close interaction between surface water and groundwater contributes to both streamflow and sustaining ecosystems. The interaction is highly variable between seasons. \ud A conceptual hydrogeological model was developed to investigate the different hydrological processes and geochemical parameters, and determine the baseline characteristics of water resources of this pristine catchment.\ud In the catchment, long term average rainfall is around 850 mm and is summer dominant which significantly influences the total hydrological system. The difference between seasons is pronounced, with high rainfall up to 600 mm/month in the wet season, and negligible rainfall in the dry season. Canopy interception significantly reduces the amount of effective rainfall because of the native vegetation cover in the pristine catchment. Evaporation exceeds rainfall the majority of the year. Due to elevated evaporation and high temperature in the tropics, at least 600 mm of annual rainfall is required to generate potential recharge.\ud Analysis of 120 years of rainfall data trend helped define “wet” and “dry periods”: decreasing trend corresponds to dry periods, and increasing trend to wet periods. The period from 1900 to 1970 was considered as Dry period 1, when there were years with no effective rainfall, and if there was, the intensity of rainfall was around 300 mm. The period 1970 – 1985 was identified as the Wet period 2, when positive effective rainfall occurred in almost every year, and the intensity reached up to 700 mm. The period 1985 – 1995 was the Dry period 2, with similar characteristics as Dry period 1. Finally, the last decade was the Wet period 2, with effective rainfall intensity up to 800 mm. This variability in rainfall over decades increased/decreased recharge and discharge, improving/reducing surface water and groundwater quantity and quality in different wet and dry periods.\ud The stream discharge follows the rainfall pattern. In the wet season, the aquifer is replenished, groundwater levels and groundwater discharge are high, and surface runoff is the dominant component of streamflow. Waterhouse River contributes two thirds and Roper Creek one third to Roper River flow. As the dry season progresses, surface runoff depletes, and groundwater becomes the main component of stream flow. Flow in Waterhouse River is negligible, the Roper Creek dries up, but the Roper River maintains its flow throughout the year. This is due to the groundwater and spring discharge from the highly permeable Tindall Limestone and tufa aquifers.\ud Rainfall seasonality and lithology of both the catchment and aquifers are shown to influence water chemistry. In the wet season, dilution of water bodies by rainwater is the main process. In the dry season, when groundwater provides baseflow to the streams, their chemical composition reflects lithology of the aquifers, in particular the karstic areas. Water chemistry distinguishes four types of aquifer materials described as alluvium, sandstone, limestone and tufa. Surface water in the headwaters of the Waterhouse River, the Roper Creek and their tributaries are freshwater, and reflect the alluvium and sandstone aquifers. At and downstream of the confluence of the Roper River, river water chemistry indicates the influence of rainfall dilution in the wet season, and the signature of the Tindall Limestone and tufa aquifers in the dry. Rainbow Spring on the Waterhouse River and Bitter Spring on the Little Roper River (known as Roper Creek at the headwaters) discharge from the Tindall Limestone. Botanic Walk Spring and Fig Tree Spring discharge into the Roper River from tufa. The source of water was defined based on water chemical composition of the springs, surface and groundwater.\ud The mechanisms controlling surface water chemistry were examined to define the dominance of precipitation, evaporation or rock weathering on the water chemical composition. Simple water balance models for the catchment have been developed.\ud The important aspects to be considered in water resource planning of this total system are the naturally high salinity in the region, especially the downstream sections, and how unpredictable climate variation may impact on the natural seasonal variability of water volumes and surface-subsurface interaction

Topics: tropics, pristine, seasonality, recharge/discharge, water chemistry, karst terrain, tufa, surface-groundwater interaction, water-rock interaction
Publisher: Queensland University of Technology
Year: 2010
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