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Identifying paleowater in California drinking water wells

de Jong, Menso, Moran, Jean E., Visser, Ate
Quaternary international 2019
Pleistocene epoch, anthropogenic activities, basins, carbon radioisotopes, climate, confined aquifer, data collection, drinking water, groundwater, groundwater recharge, hills, mixing, mountains, public water supply, statistical analysis, tracer techniques, tritium, uncertainty, wells, California
Identification of paleowater in aquifers tapped for the public water supply is important both for sound water management, because paleowater is likely to be withdrawn unsustainably in high demand regions in the absence of large scale artificial recharge operations, and for contamination susceptibility assessment, because paleowater is typically isolated from contamination sources. In this study, paleowater, which herein includes pre-Holocene groundwater and also water that recharged well before the onset of significant human alteration of the hydrologic system in California, is identified using three key isotopic indicators of groundwater residence time: tritium (3H), radiocarbon (14C), and radiogenic helium-4 (4Herad).We compared results of these three tracers from a unique data set of more than 2000 wells that are predominantly long-screened drinking water production wells. Although considerable uncertainty is associated with calculated apparent ages for individual samples, non-parametric statistical tests indicate that the composite set of isotopic indicators support classification of samples into categories that allow identification of wells most likely to produce paleowater. Approximately 7% of the wells included in the study show strong evidence for producing paleowater, with screens extending greater than 146 m below ground surface, in which 3H activity is less than 1 pCi/L, 14C activity is less than 40.9 pmC, and 4Herad concentration exceeds 7.4 × 10−8 cm3STP/gwater. An additional 22% of wells produce mixed-age water with a component of paleowater, with screens extending greater than 95 m below ground surface, in which 3H is less than 5 pCi/L, and 14C activity is less than 95.91 pmC.Wells in desert basins of southeastern California and wells in the southwestern quadrant of the Central Valley are most likely to produce paleowater that is pre-Holocene in age. Very few wells in the northwestern portion of the state, the foothills and Sierra Nevada regions, and coastal basins with intensive artificial recharge activities are categorized as producing paleowater. Climate is the primary control on paleowater occurrence, with arid portions of the state that were wetter during the Pleistocene having the largest number of wells categorized as producing paleowater. Secondarily, paleowater is found at the end of very long flow paths in confined aquifers, e.g., in the center of the Northern Sacramento Valley. In contrast, paleowater may be masked in areas where unconfined or semi-confined conditions allow substantial mixing between modern recharge and paleowater. Modern, artificially recharged water has replaced very old groundwater on a large scale in urban coastal basins.