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Assessing controls on perched saturated zones beneath the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, Idaho

December 23, 2011

Waste byproducts associated with operations at the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC) have the potential to contaminate the eastern Snake River Plain (ESRP) aquifer. Recharge to the ESRP aquifer is controlled largely by the alternating stratigraphy of fractured volcanic rocks and sedimentary interbeds within the overlying vadose zone and by the availability of water at the surface. Beneath the INTEC facilities, localized zones of saturation perched on the sedimentary interbeds are of particular concern because they may facilitate accelerated transport of contaminants. The sources and timing of natural and anthropogenic recharge to the perched zones are poorly understood. Simple approaches for quantitative characterization of this complex, variably saturated flow system are needed to assess potential scenarios for contaminant transport under alternative remediation strategies. During 2009-2011, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, employed data analysis and numerical simulations with a recently developed model of preferential flow to evaluate the sources and quantity of recharge to the perched zones. Piezometer, tensiometer, temperature, precipitation, and stream-discharge data were analyzed, with particular focus on the possibility of contributions to the perched zones from snowmelt and flow in the neighboring Big Lost River (BLR). Analysis of the timing and magnitude of subsurface dynamics indicate that streamflow provides local recharge to the shallow, intermediate, and deep perched saturated zones within 150 m of the BLR; at greater distances from the BLR the influence of streamflow on recharge is unclear. Perched water-level dynamics in most wells analyzed are consistent with findings from previous geochemical analyses, which suggest that a combination of annual snowmelt and anthropogenic sources (for example, leaky pipes and drainage ditches) contribute to recharge of shallow and intermediate perched zones throughout much of INTEC. The source-responsive fluxes model was parameterized to simulate recharge via preferential flow associated with intermittent episodes of streamflow in the BLR. The simulations correspond reasonably well to the observed hydrologic response within the shallow perched zone. Good model performance indicates that source-responsive flow through a limited number of connected fractures contributes substantially to the perched-zone dynamics. The agreement between simulated and observed perched-zone dynamics suggest that the source-responsive fluxes model can provide a valuable tool for quantifying rapid preferential flow processes that may result from different land management scenarios.

Publication Year 2011
Title Assessing controls on perched saturated zones beneath the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center, Idaho
DOI 10.3133/sir20115222
Authors Benjamin B. Mirus, Kim S. Perkins, John R. Nimmo
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2011-5222
Index ID sir20115222
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Idaho Water Science Center