Hydrology of Woronora Plateau Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone

William C Glamore and Duncan S Rayner

Key words: water balance, groundwater, soil, subsidence, under mining

Introduction. The Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone (THPSS) ecological community consists of both temporary and permanent swamps developed in peat overlying Triassic Sandstone formations at high elevations, generally between 400 and 1200 m above sea level on the south-east coast of Australia. THPSS are listed as an endangered ecological community (EEC), threatened by habitat destruction and modification of groundwater and hydrology. The primary impact of longwall mining is to swamp hydrology, influencing long-term surface and groundwater regimes. This, in turn, can have a devastating impact on swamp ecology including many important habitats for protected flora and fauna. While the ecological value of THPSS is well understood, our current understanding of the hydrology of THPSS is limited. THPSS have been found to be dependent on groundwater, and subsequently the impact of modifying groundwater interactions can be significant. Recent research has concluded that a thorough understanding of the impact of longwall mining on the surface waterways and groundwater system is necessary before any remediation options to reduce loss of water into subsurface routes and minimise impact on water quality are considered.

Aims. To address this major knowledge gap, research into the fundamental hydrology of THPSS was undertaken. The purpose of this investigation was to understand the role of surface water and groundwater inputs and losses in maintaining swamp hydrology, providing a base level foundation from which the impacts of long-wall mining on ecology can be determined and guide future remediation efforts. To undertake on-ground research, multiple locations where data collection in peat swamps was being undertaken were utilised to form a foundation from which to expand swamp investigations and target site data gaps. Two swamps were selected for further detailed investigations, both located on the Woronora Plateau, approximately 80km south of Sydney, Australia. One site was within the Woronora Nature Reserve, where vegetation has been monitored regularly for 30+ years and basic climate monitoring for the past 5 years, and another swamp within the Sydney Metropolitan Catchment Management Area where climate monitoring, groundwater levels and swamp discharge has been monitored for the previous 5 years.  Extensive on-ground investigations were undertaken (and continue to be monitored) at these sites, providing fundamental scientific information for further assessment.

Methods. A series of groundbreaking on-ground investigations were undertaken to characterize the swamp hydrogeology and surface hydrology.  Detailed surveys of peat depth were initially undertaken using a push rod and RTK-GPS to determine digital elevation models (DEM) of surface topography and subsurface sandstone. Depth to underlying sandstone was found to be variable throughout the swamps (Figure 1). This survey guided the location and density of soil profiles and piezometer installations to characterize sediment characteristics, monitor water level fluctuations and assess water and soil chemistry.  A total of 17 piezometers were installed to bed rock, including logging soil stratigraphy and soil grab samples. Slotted 50mm diameter PVC was installed with a water level logger deployed near the bedrock. Soil samples were analysed for pH, EC, moisture, organic matter and a suite of analytes via ion chromatography. Hydraulic conductivity of the upper peat layer was also tested in-situ. Collected field data and site characterization surveys were combined to construct a three-dimensional numerical hydrological groundwater model to assist in determining the swamp water balance, hydrodynamics and to refine future sampling/analysis.

Figure 1: Example swamp depth survey and piezometer locations with conceptual groundwater flow paths

Figure 1: Example swamp depth survey and piezometer locations with conceptual groundwater flow paths

Findings. Findings include fundamental swamp hydrogeolgical characteristics, water balance summaries and analysis of degrees of freedom.  Swamp sediments were observed to vary both within swamps and between swamps. Sediment depths were found to range between 0.5 m to 2.6 m deep, with typical peat depths ranging between 30 cm – 100 cm of a dense organic layer in various stages of decomposition. The organic layer is underlain by grey sandy clay with clay content decreasing with depth (Figure 2). Sand and gravel was observed in the 10 cm to 30 cm range above bedrock.  Soil acidity was observed to be relatively uniform over depth with an average pH 5.7, however electrical conductivity and chloride decreased with depth; suggesting evapo-concentration of salts within the upper layers of the swamp. Soil moisture by weight and organic content were measured to decrease with depth, indicating decreasing porosity. Specific yield of swamp surface soils (0 m to 0.2 m) ranged between 15-20%, with deeper sediments (0.2 m to 0.4 m) approximately 10% greater.

Analysis of the water levels across the swamps, in conjunction with preliminary water balance modelling, indicates that despite the current data collection program, significant degrees of freedom remain unaccounted. Key factors such as transpiration, runoff, infiltration, interflow and groundwater losses are currently unknown and present seven sources of uncertainty within the water balance model. To reduce the uncertainty and close the water balance of peat swamps, further long term monitoring and site specific measurements are required. With the addition of soil core samples, soil hydraulic conductivity, long term water level data and further swamp geometry data, eight out of a total of nine water balance quantities will be known for the swamp, enabling increased reliability to assess the impacts of climate change, changes in land use, and undermining on long-term swamp ecology.  The findings from this study provide fundamental information that forms the basis for ongoing investigations critical for understanding peat swamp hydrology.

Figure 2: Typical swamp lithology

Figure 2: Typical swamp lithology

Acknowledgements. This research was funded through the Temperate Highland Peat Swamps on Sandstone Research Program (THPSS Research Program). This Program was funded through an enforceable undertaking as per section 486A of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 between the Minister for the Environment, Springvale Coal Pty Ltd and Centennial Angus Place Pty Ltd.  Further information on the enforceable undertaking and the terms of the THPSS Research Program can be found at www.environment.gov.au/news/2011/10/21/centennial-coal-fund-145-million-research-program.

Contact. William C Glamore and Duncan S Rayner, Water Research Laboratory, School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, UNSW Australia (110 King St, Manly Vale, NSW 2093, Australia, Tel: +61/ 2 8071 9868. Email: w.glamore@wrl.unsw.edu.au ).

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