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Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5088

Publications Warehouse SIR 2007-5088

Prepared in cooperation with the City of Seward, Nebraska

Ground-Water Age and Quality in the High Plains Aquifer near Seward, Nebraska, 2003-04

By Jennifer S. Stanton, Matthew K. Landon, and Michael J. Turco

SIR 2007-5088 Contents | Citation


The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the City of Seward, Nebraska, conducted a study of ground-water age and quality to improve understanding of: (1) traveltimes from recharge areas to public-supply wells, (2) the effects of geochemical reactions in the aquifer on water quality, and (3) how water quality has changed historically in response to land-use practices. Samples were collected from four supply wells in the Seward west well field and from nine monitoring wells along two approximate ground-water flow paths leading to the well field. Concentrations of three different chlorofluorocarbons (CFC-12, CFC-11, and CFC-113), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and ratios of tritium (3H) to helium-3 (3He) isotope derived from radioactive decay of 3H were used to determine the apparent recharge age of ground-water samples. Age interpretations were based primarily on 3H/3He and CFC-12 data. Estimates of apparent ground-water age from tracer data were complicated by mixing of water of different ages in 10 of the 13 ground-water samples collected.

Apparent recharge dates of unmixed ground-water samples or mean recharge dates of young fractions of mixed water in samples collected from monitoring wells ranged from 1985 to 2002. For monitoring-well samples containing mixed water, the fraction of the sample composed of young water ranged from 26 to 77 percent of the sample. Apparent mean recharge dates of young fractions in samples collected from four supply wells in the Seward west well field ranged from about 1980 to 1990. Estimated fractions of the samples composed of young water ranged from 39 to 54 percent. It is implicit in the mixing calculations that the remainder of the sample that is not young water is composed of water that is more than 60 years old and contains no detectable quantities of modern atmospheric tracers. Estimated fractions of the mixed samples composed of "old" water ranged from 23 to 74 percent. Although alternative mixing models can be used to interpret the results, the mean age and mixing fractions from the primary mixing models used were fairly similar.

Relations of ground-water age and nitrate concentrations to depth were not consistent across the study area. In some well nests, more young water and nitrate were present near the bottom than in the middle of the aquifer. These results probably reflect pumping from irrigation and supply wells, which are screened primarily in the lower part of the aquifer, and draw younger water downward in the aquifer. Substantial mixing probably occurs because the aquifer is relatively thin (50 feet) and has a relatively high density of wells (about five pumping wells per square mile). The most reliable estimate of horizontal traveltimes based on differences in ground-water ages between a shallow monitoring well at the upgradient end of the northwest well transect and the deep well at the downgradient end of the well transect was 9 years to travel a distance of about 2 miles. The general similarity of ages at similar depths between different well nests is consistent with the fact that horizontal flow in the aquifer is relatively rapid.

Concentrations of nitrate (as nitrogen) in untreated ground-water samples from supply wells in the well field were larger than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Maximum Contaminant Level for drinking water of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter), ranging from 11.3 to 13.5 mg/L. It is unlikely that nitrate concentrations in the aquifer near the Seward west well field are decreased by denitrification in the aquifer due to oxic geochemical conditions that preclude this reaction. Nitrate concentrations coupled with water recharge dates were compared to historical estimated fertilizer application in an attempt to reconstruct historical trends in ground-water nitrate concentrations and their relation to land-use practices. Nitrate concentrations in young-water fractions, after adjustment for mixing, may be decreasing over apparent recharge dates of 1980 to 2002, corresponding to a period of generally decreasing nitrogen fertilizer applications.

Posted August 2007

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Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area

Previous Investigations



Design of Well Network

Well Installation

Water-Level Measurements

Collection and Analysis of Water Samples

Hydrogeologic Setting


Ground-Water Levels

Ground-Water Age

Ground-Water Quality


References Cited

Appendix 1. Well Installation

Appendix 2. Estimation of Ground-Water Age

Report Citation

Stanton, J.S., Landon, M.K., and Turco, M.J., 2007, Ground-water age and quality in the High Plains aquifer near Seward, Nebraska, 2003-04: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2007-5088, 37 p.

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