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Open-File Report 2009–1273

Prepared in cooperation with the
South Florida Water Management District

Investigation of Submarine Groundwater Discharge along the Tidal Reach of the Caloosahatchee River, Southwest Florida

By Christopher D. Reich

Thumbnail OFR 2009-1273 Cover image


The tidal reach of the Caloosahatchee River is an estuarine habitat that supports a diverse assemblage of biota including aquatic vegetation, shellfish, and finfish. The system has been highly modified by anthropogenic activity over the last 150 years (South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD), 2009). For example, the river was channelized and connected to Lake Okeechobee in 1881 (via canal C-43). Subsequently, three control structures (spillway and locks) were installed for flood protection (S-77 and S-78 in the 1930s) and for saltwater-intrusion prevention (S-79, W.P. Franklin Lock and Dam in 1966). The emplacement of these structures and their impact to natural water flow have been blamed for water-quality problems downstream within the estuary (Flaig and Capece, 1998; SFWMD, 2009). Doering and Chamberlain (1999) found that the operation of these control structures caused large and often rapid variations in salinity during various times of the year. Variable salinities could have deleterious impacts on the health of organisms in the Caloosahatchee River estuary.

Flow restriction along the Caloosahatchee has also been linked to surface-water eutrophication problems (Doering and Chamberlain, 1999; SFWMD, 2009) and bottom-sediment contamination (Fernandez and others, 1999). Sources of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorous) that cause eutrophication are primarily from residential sources and agriculture, though wastewater-treatment-plant discharges can also play a major role (SFWMD, 2009). The pathway for many of these nutrients is by land runoff and direct discharge from stormwater drains. An often overlooked source of nutrients and other chemical constituents is from submarine groundwater discharge (SGD). SGD can be either a diffuse or point source (for example, submarine springs) of nutrients and other chemical constituents to coastal waters (Valiela and others, 1990; Swarzenski and others, 2001; 2006; 2007; 2008). SGD can be composed of either fresh or marine water or various mixed ratios of fresh and marine water (Martin and others, 2007). In coastal areas where water-table elevations (hydraulic gradients) are steep, such as in Hood Canal, Washington (Swarzenski and others, 2007; Simonds and others, 2008), groundwater entering the coastal marine waters can be fresh (~1-4 parts per thousand, ppt). SGD in coastal locations that have low relief (low hydraulic gradients) such as the study area or other locations in Florida are typically driven by tidal pumping (Reich and others, 2002; 2008; Swarzenski and others, 2008), and water advecting into surface water is composed of recirculated marine water mixed with either fresh or brackish groundwaters.

The importance of SGD in the delivery of nutrients and trace elements to coastal environments has been shown to be both beneficial and deleterious to ecosystem health (Valiela and others, 1990). The logical step in studying SGD is to map areas where SGD occurs. Methods such as continuous surface-water radon-222 (222Rn) mapping and electrical resistivity (continuous resistivity profiles, CRP) have been developed and used to identify potential SGD sites (Dulaiova and others, 2005; Swarzenski and others 2004; 2006; 2007; 2008; Reich and others, 2008). CRP data record subsurface, bulk-resistivity measurements to depths up to 25 meters (m). The bulk resistivity can be representative of changes in porewater salinity or in lithology (Reich and others, 2008; Swarzenski and others, 2008). Radon-222 (half-life = 3.28 days) is a natural tracer of groundwater, because sediments and rocks, containing uranium-bearing materials such as limestone and phosphatic material, continually produce 222Rn. Rn-222 (also referred to simply as radon) is an ideal tracer, because there is a constant source. Since radon is a gas, 222Rn does not build up in the surface water but rather evades directly to the atmosphere (Burnett and Dulaiova, 2003; Burnett and others, 2003; Dulaiova and Burnett, 2006).

Posted February 2010

For additional information contact:
Christopher D. Reich, Geologist
U.S. Geological Survey
600 Fourth Street South
St. Petersburg, Florida 33701
Phone: (727)803-8747 ext 3032

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Suggested citation:

Reich, C.D., 2010, Investigation of Submarine Groundwater Discharge along the Tidal Reach of the Caloosahatchee River, Southwest Florida: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2009-1273, 20 p., plus apps., p. A1-A52.



Description of Study Area

Objective of Study

Methods of Investigation

Continuous Surface-Water Mapping

Time-Series Radon Sites

Results and Interpretation

Continuous Radon Mapping

Time-Series Radon and Groundwater Discharge Estimates

Whiskey Creek Site

Lock and Dam Site (S-79)

Comparison with other Florida Sites

Continuous Resistivity Profiling Surveys


Suggestions for Further Study


References Cited

Appendix — Continuous Resistivity Profile image segments collected in the Caloosahatchee River

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