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Numerical evaluation of photosensitive tracers as a strategy for separating surface and subsurface transient storage in streams

by Saubhagya S Rathore, Adam Ward, Scott L Painter
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Journal of Hydrology
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We numerically evaluated photosensitive tracers as a potential strategy for separating the effects of surface and hyporheic storage zones (SSZs and HSZs, respectively) on stream corridor transport. Correctly separating HSZ and SSZ effects is critical to estimating the hydro-biogeochemical function of a stream because HSZs and SSZs expose solutes to significantly different biogeochemical conditions, like sunlight exposure, microbial processes, and oxygen availability. Our numerical experiments used a multiscale river-corridor transport model implemented in the ATS code, which accommodates multiple storage zones with distinct travel time distributions and biogeochemical reactions. For parameter inferences, we used Bayesian inverse modeling. We found that breakthrough curves for photo-decaying tracers from day and night injection can delineate surface and hyporheic transient storage contributions, but only when interpreted jointly through a two-storage zone model. Numerical experiments that used only daytime injection or interpreted breakthrough curves with a single storage zone model yielded good fit to breakthrough curves, but parameter estimates were biased and controlling processes misattributed, examples of good model fits for the wrong reasons. Using those biased parameter estimates in reactive transport simulations resulted in significantly different projections of denitrification, which underscores the potential for stream function to be mischaracterized if tracer tests are interpreted through an inappropriately simplified model for transient storage. More generally, this study highlights the role of modeling in evaluating the experimental design and identifying the potential of system mischaracterization and its implications.