Isotope Geochemistry and Chronology of Offshore Ground Water Beneath Indian River Bay, Delaware

By John Karl Böhlke and David E. Krantz

Water-Resources Investigations Report 03-4192


The report is available in PDF format.


Results of geophysical surveys in Indian River Bay, Delaware, indicate a complex pattern of salinity variation in subestuarine ground water. Fresh ground-water plumes up to about 20 meters thick extending hundreds of meters offshore are interspersed with saline ground water, with varying degrees of mixing along the salinity boundaries. It is possible that these features represent pathways for nutrient transport and interaction with estuarine surface water, but the geophysical data do not indicate rates of movement or nutrient sources and reactions. In the current study, samples of subestuarine ground water from temporary wells with short screens placed 3 to 22 meters below the sediment-water interface were analyzed chemically and isotopically to determine the origins, ages, transport pathways, and nutrient contents of the fresh and saline components. Apparent ground-water ages determined from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), tritium (3H), and helium isotopes (3He and 4He) commonly were discordant, but nevertheless indicate that both fresh and saline ground waters ranged from a few years to at least 50 years in age. Tritium-helium (3H-3He) ages, tentatively judged to be most reliable, indicate that stratified offshore freshwater plumes originating in distant recharge areas on land were bounded by relatively young saline water that was recharged locally from the overlying estuary. Undenitrified and partially denitrified nitrate of agricultural or mixed origin was transported laterally beneath the estuary in oxic and suboxic fresh ground water. Ammonium produced by anaerobic degradation of organic matter in estuarine sediments was transported downward in suboxic saline ground water around the freshwater plumes. Many of the chemical and isotopic characteristics of the subestuarine ground waters are consistent with conservative mixing of the fresh (terrestrial) and saline (estuarine) endmember water types. These data indicate that freshwater plumes detected by geophysical surveys beneath Indian River Bay represent lateral continuations of the active surficial nitrate-contaminated freshwater flow systems originating on land, but they do not indicate directly the magnitude of fresh ground-water discharge or nutrient exchange with the estuary. There is evidence that some of the terrestrial ground-water nitrate is reduced before discharging directly beneath the estuary. Local estuarine sediment-derived ammonium in saline pore water may be a substantial benthic source of nitrogen in offshore areas of the estuary.




Purpose and Scope

Description of study area


Methods of investigation.

Drilling, geophysical logging, and well installation

Water sampling and analysis

Calculation of recharge temperature, excess air, and excess nitrogen

Isotope geochemistry and chronology of ground-water samples

Major-element chemistry and water isotopes

Dissolved gases, nitrogen species, and nitrogen isotopes

Ground-water dating by tritium

Ground-water dating by tritium-helium

Ground-water dating by chlorofluorocarbons

Ground-water dating by sulfur hexafluoride

Summary of ground-water ages

Implications for ground-water movement and nitrogen tranpsort

Sources and fate of dissolved inorganic nitrogen in ground water

Patterns of ground-water flow

Summary and conclusions


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