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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5141

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Estimates of Tracer-Based Piston-Flow Ages of Groundwater from Selected Sites: National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 2006–10

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

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (17.4 MB) Abstract

Piston-flow age dates were interpreted from measured concentrations of environmental tracers from 812 National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program groundwater sites from 27 Study Units across the United States. The tracers of interest include chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), and tritium/helium-3 (3H/3He).

Tracer data compiled for this analysis were collected from 2006 to 2010 from groundwater wells in NAWQA studies, including:

  • Land-Use Studies (LUS, shallow wells, usually monitoring wells, located in recharge areas under dominant land-use settings),

  • Major-Aquifer Studies (MAS, wells, usually domestic supply wells, located in principal aquifers and representing the shallow drinking water supply),

  • Flow System Studies (FSS, networks of clustered wells located along a flowpath extending from a recharge zone to a discharge zone, preferably a shallow stream) associated with Land-Use Studies, and

  • Reference wells (wells representing groundwater minimally impacted by anthropogenic activities) also associated with Land-Use Studies.

Tracer data were evaluated using documented methods and are presented as aqueous concentrations, equivalent atmospheric concentrations (for CFCs and SF6), and tracer- based piston-flow ages. Selected ancillary data, such as redox data, well-construction data, and major dissolved-gas (N2, O2, Ar, CH4, and CO2) data, also are presented. Recharge temperature was inferred using climate data (approximated by mean annual air temperature plus 1°C [MAAT +1°C]) as well as major dissolved-gas data (N2-Ar-based) where available. The N2-Ar-based temperatures showed significantly more variation than the climate-based data, as well as the effects of denitrification and degassing resulting from reducing conditions. The N2-Ar-based temperatures were colder than the climate-based temperatures in networks where recharge was limited to the winter months when evapotranspiration was reduced.

The tracer-based piston-flow ages compiled in this report are provided as a consistent means of reporting the tracer data. The tracer-based piston-flow ages may provide an initial interpretation of age in cases in which mixing is minimal and may aid in developing a basic conceptualization of groundwater age in an aquifer. These interpretations are based on the assumption that tracer transport is by advection only and that no mixing occurs. In addition, it is assumed that other uncertainties are minimized, including tracer degradation, sorption, contamination, or fractionation, and that terrigenic (natural) sources of tracers, and spatially variable atmospheric tracer concentrations are constrained.

First posted July 31, 2012

Suggested citation:

Shapiro, S.D., Plummer, L.N., Busenberg, E., Widman, P.K., Casile, G.C., Wayland, J.E., and Runkle, D.L., 2012, Estimates of tracer-based piston-flow ages of groundwater from selected sites—National Water-Quality Assessment Program, 2006–10: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5141, 100 p.

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