Fast ground-water mixing and basal recharge in an unconfined, alluvial aquifer, Konza LTER Site, Northeastern Kansas

TitleFast ground-water mixing and basal recharge in an unconfined, alluvial aquifer, Konza LTER Site, Northeastern Kansas
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2004
AuthorsMacpherson, GL, Sophocleous, M
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Pagination271 -299
Accession NumberKNZ00903
KeywordsChemical stratification, Dissolved oxygen, Floodplain aquifer, Ground-water recharge, Loess; Soil-water modeling

Ground-water chemistry and water levels at three levels in a well nest were monitored biweekly for two and a half years in a shallow unconfined floodplain aquifer in order to study the dynamics of such shallow aquifers. The aquifer, in northeastern Kansas, consists of high porosity, low hydraulic conductivity fine-grained sediments dominated by silt and bounded by fractured limestone and shale bedrock. Results show that the aquifer underwent chemical stratification followed by homogenization three times during the study period. The length of time between maximum stratification and complete homogenization was 3–5 months. The chemical parameters most useful for demonstrating the mixing trends were dissolved nitrate and sulfate. Higher nitrate concentrations were typical of unsaturated zone water and were sourced from fertilizer applied to the cultivated fields on the floodplain. Variations in sulfate concentrations are attributed to dissolution of rare gypsum in limestone bedrock and variable evapoconcentration in the unsaturated zone.

The mixing of three chemically different waters (entrained, unsaturated-zone water; water entering the base of the floodplain aquifer; and water in residence before each mixing event) was simulated. The resident water component for each mixing event was a fixed composition based on measured water chemistry in the intermediate part of the aquifer. The entrained water composition was calculated using a measured composition of the shallow part of the aquifer and measurements of soil-water content in the unsaturated zone. The incoming basal water composition and the fractions of each mixing component were fitted to match the measured chemistry at the three levels in the aquifer.

A conceptual model for this site explains: (1) rapid water-level rises, (2) water-chemistry changes at all levels in the aquifer coincident with the water-level rises, (3) low measured hydraulic conductivity of the valley fill and apparent lack of preferential flow pathways, (4) minuscule amounts of unsaturated-zone recharge, and (5) dissolved oxygen peaks in the saturated zone lagging water-level peaks. We postulate that rainfall enters fractures in bedrock adjacent to the floodplain. This recharge water moves rapidly through the fractured bedrock into the base of the floodplain aquifer. The recharge event through the bedrock causes a rapid rise in water level in the floodplain aquifer, and the chemistry of the deepest water in the floodplain aquifer changes at that time. The rising water also entrains slow-moving, nitrate-rich, unsaturated-zone water, altering the chemistry of water in the shallow part of the aquifer. Vertical chemical stratification in the aquifer is thus created by the change in water chemistry in the upper and lower parts of the saturated zone. As the water level begins to decline, the aquifer undergoes mixing that eventually results in homogeneous water chemistry. The rise in water level from the recharge event also displaces gas from the unsaturated zone that is then replaced as the water level declines following the recharge event. This new, oxygen-rich vadose-zone air equilibrates rapidly with saturated-zone water, resulting in a dissolved oxygen pulse in the ground water that peaks one-half to 2 months after the water-level peak. This oxygen pulse subsequently declines over a period of 2–6 months.