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Characterization of springflow in the north coast limestone of Puerto Rico using physical, chemical, and stable isotopic methods

July 1, 2000

The carbonate sequence of middle Tertiary age of the north coast of Puerto Rico is characterized by the presence of numerous springs in the coastal areas. In order to advance the understanding of the hydrologic role of the springs in the north coast limestone aquifer system of Puerto Rico, a 4-year study was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority. As part of this study, data were collected on the chemical, physical, bacteriological, oxygen-18, and deuterium composition of water from springs in the Dorado to Rincon area, in northwestern Puerto Rico. A group of springs in the Dorado to Arecibo area was selected for more detailed monitoring. Oxygen-18 and deuterium composition was also determined for water wells and monthly rainfall composites at a series of sites in the study area.

Springs are associated with all the carbonate units of the middle Tertiary sequence of the northern karst belt of Puerto Rico, except the Camuy and San Sebastian Formations. These springs mostly drain the unconfined parts of the upper and lower aquifers in the north coast limestone aquifer system. There are no first and second order springs in the north coast limestone and of those present fifth and sixth order springs are the most numerous type. Springflow at the springs measured during the study ranged from less than 0.1 to 61 cubic feet per second.

Springs in the north coast limestone can also be classified by their response to rainfall. There is little or no short-term response to rainfall at springs such as Ojo de Agua in Vega Baja, Mameyes in Manati, and Mackovic in Vega Alta. These springs are known as diffuse-type springs. Other springs such as Maguayo in Dorado, Ojo de Guillo in Manati, and San Pedro in Arecibo exhibit a strong short-term response to rainfall and are known as conduit-type springs. Spring water temperature, during the study, ranged from 22.5 to 28 °C and resembled air temperature. Specific conductance ranged from 289 to about 4,000 microsiemens per centimeter, and pH ranged from 6.9 to 7.8.

Calcium, sodium, bicarbonate, and chloride are the main ionic species in water from the springs sampled during the study. The main water type is calcium-bicarbonate and secondary water types are calcium-bicarbonate chloride and sodium-bicarbonate-chloride. A seasonal and short-term transient relation exists, particularly in conduit-type springs, between springflow, physical properties, and water quality.

Temporal and spatial variations in the oxygen-18 and deuterium composition of modern precipitation are significantly larger than those of springs and ground water in the study area. Regional flow in the upper aquifer appears to attenuate or average the variations in isotopic composition of rainfall. There is, however, a regional gradient in the deuterium composition of water from the upper aquifer in the north coast limestone, with isotopically heavier water occurring further north.

It was possible to determine the source of water contributing to springs at some sites with more detailed data collection and analysis. A drainage basin of about 10 square kilometers was delineated for the Ojo de Agua spring in Vega Baja, for a base flow of 2 cubic feet per second and an estimated subregional recharge rate of around 20 inches per year. A delineation of drainage basins for conduit-type springs in the study area such as San Pedro, Ojo de Guillo, Maguayo, and others is very difficult because the boundaries of these systems are highly responsive to changing hydraulic conditions such as rapid and short-term variations in the hydraulic head distribution as a consequence of rainfall. However, a preliminary drainage basin of about 6 square kilometers was delineated for the San Pedro spring for a base flow of 2 cubic feet per second and an estimated subregional annual recharge of 12 inches.