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Scientific Investigations Report 2006–5294

Vertical Gradients in Water Chemistry and Age in the Northern High Plains Aquifer, Nebraska, 2003

By P.B. McMahon, J.K. Böhlke, and C.P. Carney

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The northern High Plains aquifer is the primary source of water used for domestic, industrial, and irrigation purposes in parts of Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Despite the aquifer’s importance to the regional economy, fundamental ground-water characteristics, such as vertical gradients in water chemistry and age, remain poorly defined. As part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment Program, water samples from nested, short-screen monitoring wells installed in the northern High Plains aquifer were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon, pesticides, stable and radioactive isotopes, dissolved gases, and other parameters to evaluate vertical gradients in water chemistry and age in the aquifer. Chemical data and tritium and radiocarbon ages show that water in the aquifer was chemically and temporally stratified in the study area, with a relatively thin zone of recently recharged water (less than 50 years) near the water table overlying a thicker zone of older water (1,800 to 15,600 radiocarbon years). In areas where irrigated agriculture was an important land use, the recently recharged ground water was characterized by elevated concentrations of major ions and nitrate and the detection of pesticide compounds. Below the zone of agricultural influence, major-ion concentrations exhibited small increases with depth and distance along flow paths because of rock/water interactions. The concentration increases were accounted for primarily by dissolved calcium, sodium, bicarbonate, sulfate, and silica. In general, the chemistry of ground water throughout the aquifer was of high quality. None of the approximately 90 chemical constituents analyzed in each sample exceeded primary drinking-water standards.

Mass-balance models indicate that changes in ground-water chemistry along flow paths in the aquifer can be accounted for by small amounts of feldspar and calcite dissolution; goethite and clay-mineral precipitation; organic-carbon and pyrite oxidation; oxygen reduction and denitrification; and cation exchange. Mixing with surface water affected the chemistry of ground water in alluvial sediments of the Platte River Valley. Radiocarbon ages in the aquifer, adjusted for carbon mass transfers, ranged from 1,800 to 15,600 14C years before present. These results have important implications with respect to development of ground-water resources in the Sand Hills. Most of the water in the aquifer predates modern anthropogenic activity so excessive removal of water by pumping is not likely to be replenished by natural recharge in a meaningful timeframe. Vertical gradients in ground-water age were used to estimate long-term average recharge rates in the aquifer. In most areas, the recharge rates ranged from 0.02 to 0.05 foot per year. The recharge rate was 0.2 foot per year in one part of the aquifer characterized by large downward hydraulic gradients.

Nitrite plus nitrate concentrations at the water table were 0.13 to 3.13 milligrams per liter as nitrogen, and concentrations substantially decreased with depth in the aquifer. Dissolved- gas and nitrogen-isotope data indicate that denitrification in the aquifer removed 0 to 97 percent (average = 50 percent) of the nitrate originally present in recharge. The average amount of nitrate removed by denitrification in the aquifer north of the Platte River (Sand Hills) was substantially greater than the amount removed south of the river (66 as opposed to 0 percent), and the extent of nitrate removal appears to be related to the presence of thick deposits of sediment on top of the Ogallala Group in the Sand Hills that contained electron donors, such as organic carbon and pyrite, to support denitrification.

Apparent rates of dissolved-oxygen reduction and denitrification were estimated on the basis of decreases in dissolved- oxygen concentrations and increases in concentrations of excess nitrogen gas and ground-water ages along flow paths from the water table to deeper wells. Median rates of dissolved- oxygen reduction and denitrification south of the Platte River were at least 10 times smaller than the median rates north of the river in the Sand Hills. The relatively large denitrification rates in the Sand Hills indicate that the aquifer in that area may have a greater capacity to attenuate nitrate contamination than the aquifer south of the river, depending on rates of ground-water movement in the two areas. Small denitrification rates south of the river indicate that nitrate contamination in that part of the aquifer would likely persist for a longer period of time.

Version 1.0

Posted April 2007



Purpose and Scope


Description of Study Area

Geohydrologic Setting

Land Use and Water Use

Study Methods

Vertical Changes in Lithology

Vertical Hydraulic Gradients

Vertical Gradients in Water Chemistry


Dissolved Oxygen

Major Ions and Trace Elements



Vertical Gradients in Ground-Water Age

Mass-Balance Models

Radiocarbon Ages

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Suggested citation:

McMahon, P.B., Böhlke, J.K., and Carney, C.P., 2007, Vertical Gradients in Water Chemistry and Age in the Northern High Plains Aquifer, Nebraska, 2003: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2006–5294, 58 p., 2 appendixes.

For additional information contact:
Director, Colorado Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
Denver Federal Center, MS-415
Building 53
Lakewood, CO 80225
Phone: (303) 236-4882

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