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Evaluation of hydrologic processes in the eastern Snake River Plain aquifer using uranium and strontium isotopes, Idaho National Laboratory, eastern Idaho

April 14, 2023

Waste constituents discharged to the eastern Snake River Plain aquifer at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL) pose risks to the water quality of the aquifer. To understand these risks, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the DOE, is conducting geochemical studies to better understand the hydrologic processes at the INL that affect the movement of groundwater and waste constituents. In this study, we used natural uranium (234U/238U) and strontium (87Sr/86Sr) isotope ratios of surface water and groundwater to identify the sources of water, the mixing of different source waters, and the flow directions in the shallow part (upper 250 feet) of the aquifer at the INL.

Samples were collected from 17 sites at and near the INL that represent the source-water contributions to the aquifer. These source-water sites included surface water, regional groundwater, and springs. Groundwater samples from 63 sites were collected at and near the INL. For all sites, sample collection dates ranged from 1979 to 2019, but groundwater samples collected at the INL are representative of wet climate cycles when the Big Lost River (BLR) was flowing onto the INL.

The 234U/238U activity ratios and 87Sr/86Sr from groundwater at the INL were plotted on graphs within ternary mixing webs in which the three end members of the mixing web represented specific sources of recharge. The large number of sources of recharge required numerous mixing webs, representing various geographic locations at the INL, so that each mixing web represented an area with just three sources of recharge. Considerations for determining the sources of recharge to groundwater sites included chemical signatures in addition to 234U/238U and 87Sr/86Sr, hydrologic context, and geographic location. The mixing webs were used to estimate the percentage of recharge from specific sources to groundwater at wells.

The results of this study identified groundwater from the Lemhi Range as a source of recharge to the INL, which was a previously unsuspected source of recharge. The estimated spatial distribution of recharge from the BLR and groundwater from the Lost River Range also decreased and increased, respectively, relative to the spatial distribution estimated from an earlier study. Upwelling geothermal water was identified at only one well, which indicates that the upward movement of deep groundwater to the shallow part of the aquifer is largely nonexistent. Mixing between surface water and groundwater, different groundwater recharge sources, or both is ubiquitous at the INL. Mixing of water fully explains the distribution of 234U/238U and 87Sr/86Sr in groundwater at the INL and thus renders unnecessary the hypothesis that fast and slow flow zones at the INL are required to explain the distribution of 234U/238U and 87Sr/86Sr.

Publication Year 2023
Title Evaluation of hydrologic processes in the eastern Snake River Plain aquifer using uranium and strontium isotopes, Idaho National Laboratory, eastern Idaho
DOI 10.3133/pp1837D
Authors Gordon W. Rattray, James B. Paces
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Professional Paper
Series Number 1837
Index ID pp1837D
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center; Idaho Water Science Center