A hydrologic tracer study in a small, natural wetland in the humid tropics of Costa Rica
Growing populations and food demand in the tropics are leading to increased environmental pressures on wetland ecosystems, including a greater reliance on natural wetlands for water quality improvement. Effective assessment of wetland treatment potential requires an improved understanding of the hydraulic and biogeochemical factors that govern contaminant behavior, however detailed studies of flow through natural, tropical wetlands are scarce. We performed a tracer study using a conservative salt (potassium bromide) to examine the hydraulic behavior of a small, natural wetland in the Costa Rican humid tropics and modeled observed breakthrough curves using the 1-D advection-dispersion equation. Velocities in the wetland were extremely slow, from less than 4 m day(-1) to a maximum of similar to 30 m day(-1), and were distributed across several flowpaths, illustrating a spatial heterogeneity of flow and velocities. Modeled dispersion coefficients were also low (33 +/- A 33 m(2) day(-1)). Estimated residence times suggested high potential pollutant removal capacity over a range of influent concentrations, reinforcing the environmental services provided by this and other small tropical wetlands. The study also highlighted how small variations in wetland topography and vegetation yield strong differences in transport patterns that affect transport and mixing in densely vegetated, heterogeneous wetland systems. Empirical data on the hydraulics, and resulting ecosystem functions, of small, distributed wetlands may provide support for improved conservation and management of these important ecosystems.