An examination of stream reaeration coefficients and hydraulic conditions in a pool-and-riffle stream

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Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University


Oxygen transfer between flowing surface waters and the atmosphere can be mathematically described as a first-order reaction and is known as stream reaeration. The first-order rate coefficient or stream reaeration coefficient is a necessary input parameter to stream water-quality models and is partially controlled by the hydraulic conditions of the stream. These coefficients may vary for a given stream reach because of varying hydraulic characteristics brought about by streamflow changes.

Hydraulic measurements and reaeration coefficient determinations were made on four pool-and-riffle reaches of Middle Fork Beargrass Creek near Louisville, Kentucky using the hydrocarbon gas tracer technique. Measurements were made on each reach for up to seven streamflow conditions ranging from extremely low to medium. Contrary to published findings applicable to reaches not characterized by a series of pools and riffles, the reaeration coefficient was shown to increase with increasing streamflow for all four reaches studied. Therefore, stream water-quality models developed for these, or similar, stream reaches using reaeration coefficients determined at normal streamflow conditions may over estimate the influence of atmospheric reaeration under a much lower flow condition, such as extreme low flow--the selected critical condition for which water-quality models are commonly developed.

Twenty-five published equations used for estimating stream reaeration coefficients were evaluated using the measured hydraulic and reaeration data and were shown to generate highly variable and generally inaccurate predictions. Over half of the equations generated mean prediction errors of more than 50 percent. The best equation overall generated a mean prediction error of 15 percent. The equations were also shown to be highly sensitive to the methods used for determining the input parameter values.

Four equations were statistically developed from the data collected in this research. Two of the equations provided more accurate estimates for the four studied reaches than any of the 25 published equations. Mean prediction errors for the two were 1.2 and 9.2 percent. For verification, the developed equations were also evaluated against the 25 published equations using published reaeration and hydraulic data from 39 hydrocarbon gas tracer measurements on other streams. The two developed equations which were most accurate for the four study reaches were also determined to be superior to all of the 25 published equations using the verification data. Mean prediction errors for the two equations using the verification data were 2.3 and 5.5 percent.