Heterogeneities in ground-water geochemistry in a sand aquifer beneath an irrigated field

Walton R. Kelly

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The contamination of shallow aquifers by elevated nitrate concentrations is a common problem in many rural regions of the world. Aquifers under irrigated land are especially susceptible to this type of contamination. An intensive three-dimensional investigation of water chemistry was undertaken in a shallow unconfined sand aquifer in an area of intensive irrigation in Mason County, Illinois, in order to investigate processes affecting water quality. Results reveal considerable heterogeneity in the aqueous chemistry in three spatial dimensions and temporally. Recharge is rapid in this system and the water chemistry of the recharge water is variable both spatially and temporally, being especially influenced by agricultural practices. Nitrate concentrations are elevated in a zone between about 6 and 10 m beneath the surface, although in certain areas and at certain times this zone was not found. The maximum nitrate concentrations in this zone were slightly greater than 20 mg 1-1 as N, well above the US Environmental Protection Agency's maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 mg 1-1. Nitrate was generally absent both above and below this depth in the aquifer. Water relatively depleted in nitrate recharges the aquifer from the surface at the site, producing a zone of dilute water near the water table. Beneath the plume, denitrification reactions are responsible for removing nitrate from solution, probably mainly coupled to oxidation of sulfide minerals; tritium data suggest that vertical movement of solutes is rapid and thus there has been enough time to transport surface-applied fertilizer to depths in excess of 30 m in the aquifer. This rapid vertical movement is almost certainly enhanced by intensive irrigation in the county. A number of aqueous species and chemical parameters (Ca, Mg, Sr, Fe, Si, dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), dissolved oxygen, total dissolved solids, and pH) are correlated with nitrate concentrations, primarily because, like nitrate, they are either a significant fraction of fertilizers or are redox-sensitive. Drinking water quality is generally not degraded by fertilizer applications in this area, because almost all drinking-water wells are screened well below the zone of elevated nitrate concentrations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)154-176
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Nov 1 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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