In this study, we use stable isotopes of water to quantify the flow pathways delivering water to the tributaries, mainstem river and groundwater basin underlying urban San Diego. Information about sources of stormflow and recharge are necessary to maintain the health of waterways and aquifers, but studies of these processes are scarce in urban, semi-arid regions.
Isotopic methods have been used in experimental or natural watersheds, but also have potential to quantify urban water cycling behaviour and water sources. We sampled baseflow, precipitation, and hourly stormflow from eight events with a range of antecedent conditions, and used end member mixing analysis to determine stormflow and groundwater sources.
New hydrological insights for the region
Our results show that hydrologic connectivity controls stormflow sources. After a dry summer, and early in storm events, connectivity of pre-event water with the channel is low, so only new precipitation reaches the river. In wetter conditions, connectivity is higher and pre-event surface water mixes with infiltration-origin groundwater. Deeper groundwater composition mimics stormflow, a mix of stagnated river water and infiltration-origin water. The close connection between streamflow and groundwater implies that improving groundwater quality requires improvements to surface water quality. Average uncertainty in source fractions was ±8.0 %, suggesting that despite complex water pathways in urban, semi-arid environments, isotopic sampling is valuable for quantifying water sources.