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Ground Water and Surface Water A Single Resource--USGS Circular 1139


Some Common Types of Biogeochemical Reactions Affecting Transport of Chemicals in Ground Water and Surface Water

Acid-base reactions

Acid-base reactions involve the transfer of hydrogen ions (H+) among solutes dissolved in water, and they affect the effective concentrations of dissolved chemicals through changes in the H+ concentration in water. A brief notation for H+ concentration (activity) is pH, which represents a negative logarithmic scale of the H+ concentration. Smaller values of pH represent larger concentrations of H+, and larger values of pH represent smaller concentrations of H+. Many metals stay dissolved when pH values are small; increased pH causes these metals to precipitate from solution.

Precipitation and dissolution of minerals

Precipitation reactions result in minerals being formed (precipitated) from ions that are dissolved in water. An example of this type of reaction is the precipitation of iron, which is common in areas of ground-water seeps and springs. At these locations, the solid material iron hydroxide is formed when iron dissolved in ground water comes in contact with oxygen dissolved in surface water. The reverse, or dissolution reactions, result in ions being released into water by dissolving minerals. An example is the release of calcium ions (Ca++) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3-) when calcite (CaCO3)in limestone is dissolved.

Sorption and ion exchange

Sorption is a process in which ions or molecules dissolved in water (solutes) become attached to the surfaces (or near-surface parts) of solid materials, either temporarily or permanently. Thus, solutes in ground water and surface water can be sorbed either to the solid materials that comprise an aquifer or streambed or to particles suspended in ground water or surface water. The attachments of positively charged ions to clays and of pesticides to solid surfaces are examples of sorption. Release of sorbed chemicals to water is termed desorption.

When ions attached to the surface of a solid are replaced by ions that were in water, the process is known as ion exchange. Ion exchange is the process that takes place in water softeners; ions that contribute to water hardness--calcium and magnesium--are exchanged for sodium on the surface of the solid. The result of this process is that the amount of calcium and magnesium in the water declines and the amount of sodium increases. The opposite takes place when saltwater enters an aquifer; some of the sodium in the saltwater is exchanged for calcium sorbed to the solid material of the aquifer.

Oxidation-reduction reactions

Oxidation-reduction (redox) reactions take place when electrons are exchanged among solutes. In these reactions, oxidation (loss of electrons) of certain elements is accompanied by the reduction (gain of electrons) of other elements. For example, when iron dissolved in water that does not contain dissolved oxygen mixes with water that does contain dissolved oxygen, the iron and oxygen interact by oxidation and reduction reactions. The result of the reactions is that the dissolved iron loses electrons (the iron is oxidized) and oxygen gains electrons (the oxygen is reduced). In this case, the iron is an electron donor and the oxygen is an electron acceptor. Bacteria can use energy gained from oxidation-reduction reactions as they decompose organic material. To accomplish this, bacterially mediated oxidation-reduction reactions use a sequence of electron acceptors, including oxygen, nitrate, iron, sulfate, and carbon dioxide. The presence of the products of these reactions in ground water and surface water can be used to identify the dominant oxidation-reduction reactions that have taken place in those waters. For example, the bacterial reduction of sulfate (SO42-) to sulfide (HS-) can result when organic matter is oxidized to CO2.


Biodegradation is the decomposition of organic chemicals by living organisms using enzymes. Enzymes are specialized organic compounds made by living organisms that speed up reactions with other organic compounds. Microorganisms degrade (transform) organic chemicals as a source of energy and carbon for growth. Microbial processes are important in the fate and transport of many organic compounds. Some compounds, such as petroleum hydrocarbons, can be used directly by microorganisms as food sources and are rapidly degraded in many situations. Other compounds, such as chlorinated solvents, are not as easily assimilated. The rate of biodegradation of an organic chemical is dependent on its chemical structure, the environmental conditions, and the types of microorganisms that are present. Although biodegradation commonly can result in complete degradation of organic chemicals to carbon dioxide, water, and other simple products, it also can lead to intermediate products that are of environmental concern. For example, deethylatrazine, an intermediate degradation product of the pesticide atrazine (see Box P), commonly is detected in water throughout the corn-growing areas of the United States.

Dissolution and exsolution of gases

Gases are directly involved in many geochemical reactions. One of the more common gases is carbon dioxide (CO2). For example, stalactites can form in caves when dissolved CO2 exsolves (degasses) from dripping ground water, causing pH to rise and calcium carbonate to precipitate. In soils, the microbial production of CO2 increases the concentration of carbonic acid (H2CO3), which has a major control on the solubility of aquifer materials. Other gases commonly involved in chemical reactions are oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide (H2S), and methane (CH4). Gases such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and radon are useful as tracers to determine the sources and rates of ground-water movement (see Box G).


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