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Fact Sheet 2012–3138

National Water-Quality Assessment, Transport of Anthropogenic and Natural Contaminants (TANC) to Public-Supply Wells

Assessing the Vulnerability of Public-Supply Wells to Contamination: Rio Grande Aquifer System in Albuquerque, New Mexico

By Martha L. Jagucki, Laura M. Bexfield, Charles E. Heywood, and Sandra M. Eberts

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This fact sheet highlights findings from the vulnerability study of a public-supply well in Albuquerque, New Mexico (hereafter referred to as “the study well”). The study well produces about 3,000 gallons of water per minute from the Rio Grande aquifer system. Water samples were collected at the study well, at two other nearby public-supply wells, and at monitoring wells installed in or near the simulated zone of contribution to the study well. Untreated water samples from the study well contained arsenic at concentrations exceeding the Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 micrograms per liter (µg/L) established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrate also were detected, although at concentrations at least an order of magnitude less than established drinking-water standards, where such standards exist.

Overall, study findings point to four primary influences on the movement and (or) fate of contaminants and the vulnerability of the public-supply well in Albuquerque: (1) groundwater age (how long ago water entered, or recharged, the aquifer), (2) groundwater development (introduction of manmade recharge and discharge sources), (3) natural geochemical conditions of the aquifer, and (4) seasonal pumping stresses.

Concentrations of the isotope carbon-14 indicate that groundwater from most sampled wells in the local study area is predominantly water that entered, or recharged, the aquifer more than 6,000 years ago. However, the additional presence of the age tracer tritium in several groundwater samples at concentrations above 0.3 tritium units indicates that young (post-1950) recharge is reaching the aquifer across broad areas beneath Albuquerque. This young recharge is mixing with the thousands-of-years-old water, is migrating to depths as great as 245 feet below the water table, and is traveling to some (but not all) of the public-supply wells sampled. Most groundwater samples containing a fraction of young water also contain manmade VOCs, including chloroform (a byproduct of drinking-water chlorination), which indicates that the source of young recharge is, at least in part, infiltration of chlorinated municipal-supply water from leaking waterlines and sewerlines or from turf watering. Other likely manmade, urban recharge sources are seepage from constructed ponds and unlined portions of a stormwater diversion channel.

A regional-scale computer-model simulation of groundwater flow and transport to the public-supply well shows that manmade sources of recharge and discharge that were added after about 1930 have greatly altered directions of groundwater flow near Albuquerque and have caused water levels to decline by as much as 120 feet. Local-scale simulations show that seasonal changes in the pumping schedule of the study well affect the age and quality of water produced by the well. Increased pumping during the summer causes significant volumes of water to flow downward from the shallow to the intermediate zones of the aquifer, causing a higher fraction of young water to be produced by the well in the summer than in the winter months and a corresponding increase in VOC detections in the summer relative to the winter. During the winter when the study-well pump is idle for several hours each day, old, high-arsenic water from the deep zone of the aquifer travels up the wellbore and exits into the intermediate zone of the aquifer. When the pump is activated in the winter (for a relatively short time each day), some of the leaked, high-arsenic water is recaptured by the well. This results in a higher arsenic concentration (commonly more than 12 µg/L) in water produced in the winter than in the summer, and a smaller fraction of young water being produced by the well in the winter than in the summer (6 percent in the winter, compared to 11 percent in the summer). Knowledge of the vertical flow direction (both natural and pumping-enhanced) in the vicinity of a long-screened well, coupled with understanding of variations in contaminant concentrations with depth in the aquifer, can help water managers predict the positive or negative effect that wellbore flow will have on water quality and can lead to development of strategies to mitigate contamination (such as changes in pumping schedules or development of devices to inhibit wellbore flow when the pump is off).

First posted January 4, 2013

For additional information contact:
Team Leader
U.S. Geological Survey
6480 Doubletree Ave.
Columbus OH 43229–1111
Phone: (614) 430–7740
FAX: (614) 430–7777

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Suggested citation:

Jagucki, M.L., Bexfield, L.M., Heywood, C.E., and Eberts, S.M. 2012, Assessing the vulnerability of public-supply wells to contamination: Rio Grande aquifer system in Albuquerque, New Mexico: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2012-3138, 6 p. (Also available at

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