Determining groundwater flow paths of infiltrated river water is necessary for studying biochemical processes in the riparian zone, but their characterization is complicated by strong temporal and spatial heterogeneity. We investigated to what extent repeat 3D surface electrical resistance tomography (ERT) can be used to monitor transport of a salt-tracer plume under close to natural gradient conditions. The aim is to estimate groundwater flow velocities and pathways at a site located within a riparian groundwater system adjacent to the perialpine Thur River in northeastern Switzerland. Our ERT time-lapse images provide constraints on the plume’s shape, flow direction, and velocity. These images allow the movement of the plume to be followed for 35 m. Although the hydraulic gradient is only 1.43‰, the ERT time-lapse images demonstrate that the plume’s center of mass and its front propagate with velocities of 2×104m/s and 5×104m/s, respectively. These velocities are compatible with groundwater resistivity monitoring data in two observation wells 5 m from the injection well. Five additional sensors in the 5–30 m distance range did not detect the plume. Comparison of the ERT time-lapse images with a groundwater transport model and time-lapse inversions of synthetic ERT data indicate that the movement of the plume can be described for the first 6 h after injection by a uniform transport model. Subsurface heterogeneity causes a change of the plume’s direction and velocity at later times. Our results demonstrate the effectiveness of using time-lapse 3D surface ERT to monitor flow pathways in a challenging perialpine environment over larger scales than is practically possible with crosshole 3D ERT.

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