Characterising groundwater-surface water connectivity in the lower Gandak catchment, a barrage regulated biodiversity hotspot in the mid-Gangetic basin

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Journal of Hydrology


The alluvial aquifer system of the Indo-Gangetic Basin (IGB) is one of the world's most important freshwater resources, sustaining humans and river ecosystems. Understanding groundwater recharge processes and connections to meteoric and surface water is necessary for effective water resource management for human and wider ecological requirements. Parts of the mid-Gangetic Basin, across eastern Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, are characterised by stable long-term groundwater levels, high annual rainfall, and limited historical groundwater use compared to parts of Northwest India for example. In this paper we use a combination of environmental tracers and hydrograph observations to characterise sources of recharge and groundwater-surface water interaction using a transect approach across the catchment of the River Gandak, a major barrage-regulated tributary of the River Ganga. Stable isotope results show that the dominant source of groundwater recharge, in the shallow (0–40 m bgl) Holocene and underlying Pleistocene aquifer system (>40 m bgl), is local rainfall. The shallow Holocene aquifer is also supplemented by local recharge from river and canal seepage and irrigation return flow in the upper and mid parts of the catchment. These observations are corroborated by evidence from detailed groundwater hydrographs and salinity observations, indicating localised canal, river and lake connectivity to groundwater. In the middle and lower catchment, river discharge is dominated by groundwater baseflow during the peak dry season when barrage gates are closed, which contributes to ecological flows for endangered river dolphins and gharial crocodiles. Groundwater residence time tracers indicate active modern recharge in the shallow alluvial aquifer system across the catchment. In the shallow Holocene aquifer elevated arsenic (As), iron (Fe), and manganese (Mn) exceeded WHO drinking water guidelines in a minority of sites, and uranium (U) and fluoride (F) concentrations approach but do not exceed the WHO guideline values. These observations varied across the catchment with higher As, Fe and Mn in the upper and mid catchments and higher U in the lower catchment. Groundwater salinity was typically between 500 and 1000 μS/cm, and isolated higher salinity was due to recharge from flood-plain wetlands and lakes impacted by evaporation. At present, the Gandak catchment has relatively high rainfall and low abstraction, which maintains stable groundwater levels and thus baseflow to the river in the dry season. Potential future threats to groundwater resources, and therefore river ecology due to the sensitivity to changes in baseflow in the catchment, would likely be driven by reductions in local monsoon rainfall, changes in water management practices and increased groundwater use.



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