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An alternative process model of preferential contaminant travel times in the unsaturated zone: Application to Rainier Mesa and Shoshone Mountain, Nevada

November 18, 2012

Simulating contaminant transport in unsaturated zones with sparse hydraulic property information is a difficult, yet common, problem. When contaminant transport may occur via preferential flow, simple modeling approaches can provide predictions of interest, such as the first arrival of contaminant, with minimal site characterization. The conceptual model for unsaturated zone flow at Rainier Mesa and Shoshone Mountain, Nevada National Security Site, establishes the possibility of preferential flow through lithologies between potential radionuclide sources and the saturated zone. After identifying preferential flow as a possible contaminant transport process, we apply a simple model to estimate first arrival times for conservatively transported radionuclides to reach the saturated zone. Simulated preferential flow travel times at Rainier Mesa are tens to hundreds of years for non-ponded water sources and 1 to 2 months for continuously ponded water sources; first arrival times are approximately twice as long at Shoshone Mountain. These first arrival time results should then be viewed as a worst-case scenario but not necessarily as a timescale for a groundwater-contamination hazard, because concentrations may be very low. The alternative approach demonstrated here for estimating travel times can be useful in situations where predictions are needed by managers for the fastest arrival of contaminants, yet budgetary or time constraints preclude more rigorous analysis, and when additional model estimates are needed for comparison (i.e., model abstraction).

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