Australian Journal of Botany Australian Journal of Botany Society
Southern hemisphere botanical ecosystems
RESEARCH ARTICLE

Rivers as groundwater-dependent ecosystems: a review of degrees of dependency, riverine processes and management implications

A. J. Boulton A B and P. J. Hancock A
+ Author Affiliations
- Author Affiliations

A Ecosystem Management, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351, Australia.

B Corresponding author. Email: aboulton@une.edu.au

Australian Journal of Botany 54(2) 133-144 https://doi.org/10.1071/BT05074
Submitted: 1 April 2005  Accepted: 23 August 2005   Published: 5 April 2006

Abstract

Many rivers are classified as groundwater-dependent ecosystems (GDEs), owing to the contribution of groundwater to their base flow. However, there has been little explicit recognition of the way groundwater influences riverine biota or processes, how degrees of ecological dependency may vary, and the management implications of this dependency. The permeable beds and banks of these GDEs where surface water and groundwater exchange are termed ‘hyporheic zones’. They are often inhabited by invertebrates, with varying reliance on groundwater, although the ecological roles of these invertebrates are little known. Upwelling hyporheic water can promote surface primary productivity, influence sediment microbial activity, and affect organic matter decomposition. In many intermittent streams, variable groundwater inputs alter the duration of flow or water permanence, and the duration and timing of these largely govern the biota and rates of many ecosystem processes (e.g. leaf decomposition). Not only is the physical presence of water important, thermal and chemical conditions arising from groundwater inputs also have direct and indirect effects on riverine biota and rates or types of in-stream processes. Differing degrees of dependency of rivers on groundwater mediate all these influences, and may change over time and in response to human activities. Alteration of groundwater inputs through extraction from riparian wells or changes in local water table have an impact on these GDEs, and some current management plans aim to restrict groundwater extraction from near permeable river channels. However, these are often ‘blanket’ restrictions and the mechanisms of GDE dependency or timing of groundwater requirements are poorly understood, hampering refinement of this management approach. More effective management of these GDEs into the future can result only from a better understanding of the mechanisms of the dependency, how these vary among river types and what in-stream changes might be predicted from alteration of groundwater inputs.


Acknowledgments

We appreciate the invitation by Professor Derek Eamus to contribute to this timely Special Issue and hope this paper provokes further research into groundwater requirements by RBS. We thank many people for useful discussions about these GDEs over the years, particularly Richard Evans, Peter Cook, Phil Morris, Grant Hose, Stuart Halse, Paul Howe and Nick Gartrell. Andrew Boulton thanks the Australian Research Council and Peter Hancock thanks ECOWISE Environmental and the Australian Research Council for funding while this paper was being prepared. We also thank Derek Eamus and two anonymous referees for comments on earlier drafts of the manuscript.


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