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Ground-Water Age and its Water-Management Implications, Cook Inlet Basin, Alaska

July 1, 2002

The Cook Inlet Basin encompasses 39,325 square miles in south-central Alaska. Approximately 350,000 people, more than half of Alaska?s population, reside in the basin, mostly in the Anchorage area. However, rapid growth is occurring in the Matanuska?Susitna and Kenai Peninsula Boroughs to the north and south of Anchorage. Ground-water resources provide about one-third of the water used for domestic, commercial and industrial purposes in the Anchorage metropolitan area and are the sole sources of water for industries and residents outside Anchorage. In 1997, a study of the Cook Inlet Basin was begun as part of the U.S. Geological Survey?s National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Samples of ground water were collected from 35 existing wells in unconsolidated glacial and alluvial aquifers during 1999 to determine the regional quality of ground water beneath about 790 mi2 of developed land and to gain a better understanding of the natural and human factors that affect the water quality (Glass, 2001). Of the 35 wells sampled, 31 had water analyzed for atmospherically derived substances to determine the ground water?s travel time from its point of recharge to its point of use or discharge?also known as ground-water age.

Ground water moves slowly from its point of recharge to its point of use or discharge. This water starts as rain and melting snow that soak into the ground as recharge. In the Matanuska?Susitna, Anchorage, and Kenai Peninsula areas, ground water generally moves from near the mountain fronts toward Cook Inlet or the major rivers. Much of the water pumped by domestic and public-supply wells may have traveled less than 10 miles, and the trip may have taken as short a time as a few days or as long as several decades. This ground water is vulnerable to contamination from the land surface, and many contaminants in the water would follow the same paths and have similar travel times from recharge areas to points of use as the chemical substances analyzed in this study. The effects of contamination may not be seen for several years after a contaminant is introduced into the ground-water system. Many contaminants could make the water unsuitable for drinking for many years, even in concentrations too low to detect without expensive chemical tests. The travel time of a chemically conservative substance depends primarily on the velocity of ground water through the aquifer, which in turn depends on the hydrologic characteristics of the aquifer system.