Water Resources of Colorado

Vertical Gradients in Water Chemistry in the Central High Plains Aquifer, Southwestern Kansas and Oklahoma Panhandle, 1999

by P.B. McMahon

Available from the U.S. Geological Survey, Branch of Information Services, Box 25286, Denver Federal Center, Denver, CO 80225, USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 01-4028, 47 p., 17 figs.

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The central High Plains aquifer is the primary source of water for domestic, industrial, and irrigation uses in parts of Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Water-level declines of more than 100 feet in some areas of the aquifer have increased the demand for water deeper in the aquifer. The maximum saturated thickness of the aquifer ranged from 500 to 600 feet in 1999. As the demand for deeper water increases, it becomes increasingly important for resource managers to understand how the quality of water in the aquifer changes with depth. In 199899, 18 monitoring wells at nine sites in southwestern Kansas and the Oklahoma Panhandle were completed at various depths in the central High Plains aquifer, and one monitoring well was completed in sediments of Permian age underlying the aquifer. Water samples were collected once from each well in 1999 to measure vertical gradients in water chemistry in the aquifer.

Tritium concentrations measured in ground water indicate that water samples collected in the upper 30 feet of the aquifer were generally recharged within the last 50 years, whereas all of the water samples collected at depths more than 30 feet below the water table were recharged more than 50 years ago. Dissolved oxygen was present throughout the aquifer, with concentrations ranging from 1.7 to 8.4 mg/L.

Water in the central High Plains aquifer was predominantly a calcium-bicarbonate type that exhibited little variability in concentrations of dissolved solids with depth (290 to 642 mg/L). Exceptions occurred in some areas where there had been upward movement of mineralized water from underlying sediments of Permian age and areas where there had been downward movement of mineralized Arkansas River water to the aquifer. Calcium-sulfate and sodium-chloride waters dominated and concentrations of dissolved solids were elevated (862 to 4,030 mg/L) near the base of the aquifer in the areas of upward leakage. Dissolution of gypsum or anhydrite and halite in sediments of Permian age by ground water was the likely source of calcium, sulfate, sodium, and chloride in those waters. Calcium-sodium-sulfate waters dominated, and concentrations of dissolved solids were as large as 4,916 mg/L near the water table in the area of downward leakage. Dissolution of minerals in sedimentary deposits of marine origin in upstream areas of the Arkansas River drainage were the likely sources of calcium, sodium, and sulfate in those waters.

Nitrate was detected throughout the aquifer and the background concentration was estimated to be 2.45 mg/L as N. The largest nitrate concentrations (8.28, 22, and 54.4 mg/L as N) occurred in recently recharged water collected adjacent to irrigated fields. Three pesticides (atrazine, metolachlor, simazine) and five pesticide degradation products (alachlor ethanesulfonic acid, alachlor oxanilic acid, deethylatrazine, metolachlor ethanesulfonic acid, metolachlor oxanilic acid) were detected in recently recharged water from six water-table wells. Five of the six wells were adjacent to irrigated fields. These data indicate that concentrations of nitrate and pesticides increased over time in some areas of the aquifer as a result of agricultural activities.

Results from this study indicate that vertical gradients in water chemistry existed in the central High Plains aquifer. The chemical gradients resulted from chemical inputs to the aquifer from underlying sediments of Permian age, from the Arkansas River, and from agricultural activities. In areas where those chemical inputs occurred, water quality in the aquifer was impaired and may not have been suitable for some intended uses.

Table of Contents




Purpose and Scope


Description of Study Area

Geohydrologic Setting

Land and Water Use

Methods of Investigation

Vertical Changes in Lithology

Geophysical and Lithologic Logs

Elemental and X-ray Diffraction Analyses

Vertical Hydraulic Gradients

Vertical Gradients in Water Chemistry


Dissolved Oxygen and Organic Carbon

Major Ions




Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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Water Resources of Colorado

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