Electrical monitoring of saline tracers to reveal subsurface flow pathways in a flat ditch-drained field

J. Robinson, A. Buda, A. Collick, A. Shober, D. Ntarlagiannis, R. Bryant, G. Folmar, S. Andres, L. Slater

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Time-lapse electrical resistivity imaging (ERI) combined with salt tracers can enhance our understanding of subsurface flow and transport in ditch-drained agroecosystems. In a nearly level field adjacent to a drainage ditch, we installed 192 electrodes in a 72-m2 plot along with five hydrometric stations to enable time-lapse ERI monitoring during storms. Immediately prior to a wintertime rainstorm, we applied 5 kg of KBr to a shallow trench located roughly 11 m upgradient from the ditch. Antecedent conditions prior to the storm were wet, assuring a hydrologically connected state that favored tracer dissolution and movement in the subsurface. We monitored the evolution of the tracer plume with ERI over a seven-day period. Four-dimensional (4D) delineation of precipitation and tracer transport using time-lapse ERI showed that the tracer plume moved preferentially downward through a discontinuity in the argillic horizon within the first 57 hrs. Over the following 79 hrs, the tracer plume exhibited steady, lateral movement towards the drainage ditch within a more permeable sandy horizon situated just below the argillic. A spatial moment analysis of logarithmic changes in conductivity in the sand layer revealed seepage velocities ranging from 0.0027 to 0.0482 m d−1; these values were positively correlated with hydraulic gradients, suggesting laminar flow processes typical of sandy aquifers. Increasing groundwater velocities with hydraulic gradients suggest that solute transfers from groundwater to ditch are likely to be faster in storms, especially during wet periods. Even so, predominantly slow lateral transport within the sandy horizon, even during storms, indicates that critical source areas of pollutant loss are likely within a few meters of the ditch.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number124862
JournalJournal of Hydrology
StatePublished - Jul 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


  • Delmarva Peninsula
  • First-arrival times
  • Seepage velocities
  • Time-lapse electrical resistivity imaging (ERI)


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