Natural Resources, School of


Date of this Version



Water Resour. Res., 51, 8883–8899


Copyright 2015. American Geophysical Union.

DOI: 10.1002/2015WR017602


The mean transit time (MTT) is a fundamental property of a groundwater flow system that is strongly related to the ratio of recharge rate to storage volume. However, obtaining samples for estimating the MTT using environmental tracers is problematic as flow-weighted samples over the full spectrum of transit times are needed. Samples collected fromthe base flow of a gaining stream in the North Carolina Coastal Plain (West Bear Creek) that were corrected for exchange with the atmosphere yielded environmental tracer concentrations (SF6 and CFC-11) very similar to flow-weighted values from nine or ten streambed piezometers that directly sampled groundwater during low streamflow. At higher streamflow on the falling limb of the hydrograph, stream tracer concentrations (after correction for gas exchange) were significantly higher than the flow-weighted mean from piezometers, consistent with dominance of the streamtracer signal by transient influx of surface water and/or younger subsurface water. The apparent MTT derived from SF6 in low flow stream water samples was 26 years, suggesting a groundwater recharge rate of about 210 mm/yr, that is consistent with vertical profiles obtained by sampling nested piezometers in the aquifer. When sampled under low flow conditions when streamflow consists of a high component of groundwater discharge, West Bear Creek appears to act as a flow-weighted integrator of transit times and, streamflow samples can provide fundamental information regarding groundwater recharge rate and MTT. Our study suggests that watershed-scale evaluation of some groundwater flow systems is possible without utilizing monitoring wells.