In snowmelt‐driven mountain watersheds, the hydrologic connectivity between meteoric waters and stream flow generation varies strongly with the season, reflecting variable connection to soil and groundwater storage within the watershed. This variable connectivity regulates how streamflow generation mechanisms transform the seasonal and elevational variation in oxygen and hydrogen isotopic composition (δ18O and δD) of meteoric precipitation. Thus, water isotopes in stream flow can signal immediate connectivity or more prolonged mixing, especially in high‐relief mountainous catchments. We characterized δ18O and δD values in stream water along an elevational gradient in a mountain headwater catchment in southwestern Montana. Stream water isotopic compositions related most strongly to elevation between February and March, exhibiting higher δ18O and δD values with decreasing elevation. These elevational isotopic lapse rates likely reflect increased connection between stream flow and proximal snow‐derived water sources heavily subject to elevational isotopic effects. These patterns disappeared during summer sampling, when consistently lower δ18O and δD values of stream water reflected contributions from snowmelt or colder rainfall, despite much higher δ18O and δD values expected in warmer seasonal rainfall. The consistently low isotopic values and absence of a trend with elevation during summer suggest lower connectivity between summer precipitation and stream flow generation as a consequence of drier soils and greater transpiration. As further evidence of intermittent seasonal connectivity between the stream and adjacent groundwaters, we observed a late‐winter flush of nitrate into the stream at higher elevations, consistent with increased connection to accumulating mineralized nitrogen in riparian wetlands. This pattern was distinct from mid‐summer patterns of nitrate loading at lower elevations that suggested heightened human recreational activity along the stream corridor. These observations provide insights linking stream flow generation and seasonal water storage in high elevation mountainous watersheds. Greater understanding of the connections between surface water, soil water and groundwater in these environments will help predict how the quality and quantity of mountain runoff will respond to changing climate and allow better informed water management decisions.
This content will become publicly available on January 4, 2024
- NSF-PAR ID:
- Publisher / Repository:
- Environmental Science: Advances
- Date Published:
- Journal Name:
- Environmental Science: Advances
- Page Range / eLocation ID:
- 115 to 131
- Medium: X
- Sponsoring Org:
- National Science Foundation
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