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Techniques and Methods 4-F3

National Water-Quality Assessment Program
National Research Program

TracerLPM (Version 1): An Excel Workbook® for Interpreting Groundwater Age Distributions from Environmental Tracer Data

By Bryant C. Jurgens, J. K. Böhlke, and Sandra M. Eberts

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (10.4 MB)Abstract

TracerLPM is an interactive Excel® (2007 or later) workbook program for evaluating groundwater age distributions from environmental tracer data by using lumped parameter models (LPMs). Lumped parameter models are mathematical models of transport based on simplified aquifer geometry and flow configurations that account for effects of hydrodynamic dispersion or mixing within the aquifer, well bore, or discharge area. Five primary LPMs are included in the workbook: piston-flow model (PFM), exponential mixing model (EMM), exponential piston-flow model (EPM), partial exponential model (PEM), and dispersion model (DM). Binary mixing models (BMM) can be created by combining primary LPMs in various combinations. Travel time through the unsaturated zone can be included as an additional parameter. TracerLPM also allows users to enter age distributions determined from other methods, such as particle tracking results from numerical groundwater-flow models or from other LPMs not included in this program. Tracers of both young groundwater (anthropogenic atmospheric gases and isotopic substances indicating post-1940s recharge) and much older groundwater (carbon-14 and helium-4) can be interpreted simultaneously so that estimates of the groundwater age distribution for samples with a wide range of ages can be constrained.

TracerLPM is organized to permit a comprehensive interpretive approach consisting of hydrogeologic conceptualization, visual examination of data and models, and best-fit parameter estimation. Groundwater age distributions can be evaluated by comparing measured and modeled tracer concentrations in two ways: (1) multiple tracers analyzed simultaneously can be evaluated against each other for concordance with modeled concentrations (tracer-tracer application) or (2) tracer time-series data can be evaluated for concordance with modeled trends (tracer-time application). Groundwater-age estimates can also be obtained for samples with a single tracer measurement at one point in time; however, prior knowledge of an appropriate LPM is required because the mean age is often non-unique.

LPM output concentrations depend on model parameters and sample date. All of the LPMs have a parameter for mean age. The EPM, PEM, and DM have an additional parameter that characterizes the degree of age mixing in the sample. BMMs have a parameter for the fraction of the first component in the mixture. An LPM, together with its parameter values, provides a description of the age distribution or the fractional contribution of water for every age of recharge contained within a sample. For the PFM, the age distribution is a unit pulse at one distinct age. For the other LPMs, the age distribution can be much broader and span decades, centuries, millennia, or more. For a sample with a mixture of groundwater ages, the reported interpretation of tracer data includes the LPM name, the mean age, and the values of any other independent model parameters.

TracerLPM also can be used for simulating the responses of wells, springs, streams, or other groundwater discharge receptors to nonpoint-source contaminants that are introduced in recharge, such as nitrate. This is done by combining an LPM or user-defined age distribution with information on contaminant loading at the water table. Information on historic contaminant loading can be used to help evaluate a model’s ability to match real world conditions and understand observed contaminant trends, while information on future contaminant loading scenarios can be used to forecast potential contaminant trends.

First posted July 19, 2012

For additional information contact:
Director, California Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
6000 J Street, Placer Hall
Sacramento, California 98519

Part or all of this report is presented in Portable Document Format (PDF); the latest version of Adobe Reader or similar software is required to view it. Download the latest version of Adobe Reader, free of charge.

Suggested citation:

Jurgens, B.C., Böhlke, J.K., and Eberts, S.M., 2012, TracerLPM (Version 1): An Excel® workbook for interpreting groundwater age distributions from environmental tracer data: U.S. Geological Survey Techniques and Methods Report 4-F3, 60 p.




Lumped Parameter Model Calculations

Environmental Tracers

Total Mean Age, Mean Age, and Unsaturated-Zone Travel Time

TracerLPM Workbook




References Cited

Appendix A: PEM and EPM Derivations

Appendix B: Installation Notes

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