Groundwater is often overlooked as a source of nutrients to estuaries and most previous groundwater-surface water exchange studies did not consider the input of dissolved organic nutrients. Here, we hypothesize that groundwater is contributing to high dissolved inorganic and organic nutrient concentrations in an eutrophic subtropical tidal river and estuary (Caboolture River, Queensland, Australia). Several spatial radon (222Rn, a natural groundwater tracer) surveys indicated that the majority of groundwater discharge occurred in the tidal river just upstream of the estuary, and that the radon hotspot did not necessarily coincide with the nutrient hotspot. A radon mass balance revealed that groundwater discharge into the tidal river was equivalent to about 50% of the gauged river flow in February 2012. Groundwater discharge apparently contributed 85% of ammonium and 35% of phosphate entering the estuary. In spite of significant correlations between radon and nitrate and dissolved organic nitrogen (DON) during spatial surveys, groundwater could account for only 7% of nitrate and 9% of DON inputs due to low groundwater concentrations and other sources (i.e., apparently a sewage treatment plant for nitrate and floodplain tributaries for DON). Because total dissolved nitrogen (TDN) was dominated by DON (69%) and nitrate (23%), the groundwater ammonium inputs were a minor source to the TDN pool within the tidal river and estuary. This study demonstrated that correlations between a groundwater tracer and nutrient concentrations do not necessarily illustrate causation. To assess how groundwater drives nutrient dynamics in estuaries, it may be important to include the tidal river (not only the estuarine salinity gradient) in field investigations, consider DON (not only ammonium and nitrate), and perform detailed budgets that include minor tributaries.
Makings, U, Santos, IR, Maher, DT, Golsby-Smith, L & Eyre, BD 2014, 'Importance of budgets for estimating the input of groundwater-derived nutrients to an eutrophic tidal river and estuary', Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science, vol. 143, pp. 65-76.
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