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Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5229

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Estimates of Tracer-Based Piston-Flow Ages of Groundwater from Selected Sites: National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 1992–2005

By Stephen R. Hinkle, Stephanie D. Shapiro, L. Niel Plummer, Eurybiades Busenberg, Peggy K. Widman, Gerolamo C. Casile, and Julian E. Wayland

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (6.5 MB) Abstract

This report documents selected age data interpreted from measured concentrations of environmental tracers in groundwater from 1,399 National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program groundwater sites across the United States. The tracers of interest were chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and tritium/helium-3 (3H/3He).

Tracer data compiled for this analysis primarily were from wells representing two types of NAWQA groundwater studies—Land-Use Studies (shallow wells, usually monitoring wells, in recharge areas under dominant land-use settings) and Major-Aquifer Studies (wells, usually domestic supply wells, in principal aquifers and representing the shallow, used resource). Reference wells (wells representing groundwater minimally impacted by anthropogenic activities) associated with Land-Use Studies also were included. Tracer samples were collected between 1992 and 2005, although two networks sampled from 2006 to 2007 were included because of network-specific needs. Tracer data from other NAWQA Program components (Flow System Studies, which are assessments of processes and trends along groundwater flow paths, and various topical studies) were not compiled herein.

Tracer data from NAWQA Land-Use Studies and Major-Aquifer Studies that previously had been interpreted and published are compiled herein (as piston-flow ages), but have not been reinterpreted. Tracer data that previously had not been interpreted and published are evaluated using documented methods and compiled with aqueous concentrations, equivalent atmospheric concentrations (for CFCs and SF6), estimates of tracer-based piston-flow ages, and selected ancillary data, such as redox indicators, well construction, and major dissolved gases (N2, O2, Ar, CH4, and CO2).

Tracer-based piston-flow ages documented in this report are simplistic representations of the tracer data. Tracer-based piston-flow ages are a convenient means of conceptualizing groundwater age. However, the piston-flow model is based on the potentially limiting assumptions that tracer transport is advective and that no mixing occurs. Additional uncertainties can arise from tracer degradation, sorption, contamination, or fractionation; terrigenic (natural) sources of tracers; spatially variable atmospheric tracer concentrations; and incomplete understanding of mechanisms of recharge or of the conditions under which atmospheric tracers were partitioned to recharge. The effects of some of these uncertainties are considered herein. For example, degradation, contamination, or fractionation often can be identified or inferred. However, detailed analysis of the effects of such uncertainties on the tracer-based piston-flow ages is constrained by sparse data and an absence of complementary lines of evidence, such as detailed solute transport simulations. Thus, the tracer-based piston-flow ages compiled in this report represent only an initial interpretation of the tracer data.

First posted January 27, 2011

For additional information contact:
Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2130 SW 5th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97201

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Suggested citation:

Hinkle, S.R., Shapiro, S.D., Plummer, L.N., Busenberg, Eurybiades, Widman, P.K., Casile, G.C., and Wayland, J.E., 2010, Estimates of tracer-based piston-flow ages of groundwater from selected sites—National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 1992–2005: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010-5229, 90 p.

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