Using natural distributions of short-lived radium isotopes to quantify groundwater discharge and recharge

Krest, James M., Judson W. Harvey

Limnol. Oceanogr., 48(1), 2003, 290-298 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2003.48.1.0290

ABSTRACT: Radium activity in pore water of wetland sediments often differs from the amount expected from local production, decay, and exchange with solid phases. This disequilibrium results from vertical transport of radium with groundwater that flows between the underlying aquifer and surface water. In situations where groundwater recharge or discharge is significant, the rate of vertical water flow through wetland sediment can be determined from the radium disequilibrium by a combined model of transport, production, decay, and exchange with solid phases. We have developed and tested this technique at three sites in the freshwater portion of the Everglades by quantifying vertical advective velocities in areas with persistent groundwater recharge or discharge and estimating a coefficient of dispersion at a site that is subject to reversals between recharge and discharge. Groundwater velocities (v) were determined to be between 0 and -0.5 cm d-1 for a recharge site and 1.5 ± 0.4 cm d-1 for a discharge site near Levee 39 in the Everglades. Strong gradients in 223Ra and 224Ra usually occurred at the base of the peat layer, which avoided the problems of other tracers (e.g., chloride) for which greatest sensitivity occurs near the peat surface—a zone readily disturbed by processes unrelated to groundwater flow. This technique should be easily applicable to any wetland system with different production rates of these isotopes in distinct sedimentary layers or surface water. The approach is most straightforward in systems where constant pore-water ionic strength can be assumed, simplifying the modeling of radium exchange.

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