Using MODFLOW and RT3D to simulate diffusion and reaction without discretizing low permeability zones

Somayeh G. Esfahani, Albert J. Valocchi, Charles J. Werth

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Low permeability zones (LPZs) are major sources of groundwater contamination after active remediation to remove pollutants in adjacent high permeability zones (HPZs). Slow back diffusion from LPZs to HPZs can extend management of polluted sites by decades. Numerical models are often used to simulate back diffusion, estimate cleanup times, and develop site management strategies. Sharp concentration gradients of pollutants are present at the interface between HPZs and LPZs, and hence accurate simulation requires fine grid sizes resulting in high computational burden. Since the MODFLOW family of codes is widely used in practice, we develop a new approach for modeling pollutant back diffusion using MODFLOW/RT3D that eliminates the need for fine discretization of the LPZ. Instead, the LPZ is treated as an impermeable region in MODFLOW, while in RT3D the LPZ is conceptualized as a series of immobile zones coupled with a mobile zone at the HPZ/LPZ interface. Finite volume discretization of diffusion and reaction within the LPZ is then modeled as mass transfer and reaction among several immobile species. This results in a simulation domain with significantly fewer grid cells compared to that required if all LPZs are discretized, providing potential for improved computational efficiency. Cases, including a layer of HPZ over an LPZ, a thin/thick lens of LPZ embedded in HPZ, and multiple lens of LPZs embedded in HPZ are tested by the new approach for tracer and reactive scenarios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number103777
JournalJournal of Contaminant Hydrology
StatePublished - May 2021


  • Back diffusion
  • Low permeable zone
  • Mass transfer
  • Numerical model
  • RT3D

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Water Science and Technology


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