Berkeley Lab

Quantifying Snowmelt Recharge into Hillslope Soils and Rocks, and Solute Export to Rivers

Subsurface flow and transport. a. Seasonal variation in subsurface flow. b. Flow rates along soil, weathering zone, and bedrock. c. Seasonality of subsurface flow and specific conductance (SC) of discharging water. d. Concentration–discharge relation for SC.

Quantifying connections between snowmelt infiltration and seasonal variations in solute export to surface waters is frequently confounded by a lack of critical measurements. This study introduces a novel approach whereby distributions of fluid flow paths are highly resolved through the use of critical subsurface measurements to reveal their strong temporal sensitivity to snowpack accumulation and melt timing.

This study presents a novel methodological approach to quantify how hillslope subsurface flow and chemical transport contribute to stream flow and water quality.


Although most of the water entering watersheds permeates through soil and underlying bedrock before entering rivers, subsurface flow paths and their influence on river water chemistry are poorly understood. This study presents a new framework for quantifying depth- and time-dependent subsurface flow and solute transport along an intensively studied hillslope that utilizes in-situ hydrologic and geochemical measurements to constrain predictions. Results quantify the importance of abrupt groundwater excursions accompanying snowmelt for mobilizing dissolved chemicals in soil and weathered bedrock, with the latter responsible for the greatest contribution to solute export. The new concept of subsurface concentration-discharge relations was developed through this work that provides information needed to mechanistically explain solute concentrations and flow measured in rivers. With information on topography, meteorology, and subsurface hydraulic properties, this framework is broadly transferrable to other hillslope and watershed settings.


T.K. Tokunaga et al., “Depth- and time-resolved distributions of snowmelt-driven hillslope subsurface flow and transport and their contributions to surface waters.” Water Resources Research 55, 9474-9499 (2019). [DOI:10.1029/2019WR025093].