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Groundwater hydrology and chemistry of Jamestown Island, Virginia—Potential effects of tides, storm surges, and sea-level rise on archaeological, cultural, and ecological resources

November 3, 2021

As the site of the first permanent English settlement in North America in 1607, Jamestown Island, Colonial National Historical Park (COLO), Virginia, contains a rich archaeological record that extends from the Paleoindian period (15,000 to 8,000 years ago) through the 20th century. The island is located on the lower James River near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. Jamestown Island vegetation is dominated by upland forests surrounded by tidal, freshwater-to-oligohaline marshes. Along the Virginia coast, relative sea-level rise was more than 2.5 times the global average during the 20th century. Consequently, the National Park Service (NPS) has identified COLO as one of the 25 national parks most threatened by climate change.

Surface waters across the island are hydraulically connected to the laterally continuous Surficial aquifer. The land-surface altitude of the island is low, with two-thirds of the island less than 5 feet (ft) above the North American Vertical Datum of 1988 (NAVD 88). Consequently, sea-level rise, combined with tides and storm surges, threatens the island and its resources as surface-water and groundwater levels rise, saltwater enters the Surficial aquifer, and groundwater chemistry changes. The impact of sea-level rise on the island’s surface-water resources has been well studied, but groundwater effects have been largely ignored. Quantifying the effects of tides, storm surges, and sea-level rise on groundwater levels and chemistry is essential to developing an effective strategy for managing climate-induced changes. The first step in developing a response strategy includes a parkwide general risk assessment for archaeological sites on the island, so that sites can be prioritized for management actions. The U.S. Geological Survey and the NPS began a study in 2015 to develop a long-term groundwater-monitoring program to evaluate this risk and to develop an updated management strategy.

The groundwater-monitoring program consists of 45 wells and piezometers in two individual clusters and three transects across the island in different hydrologic and chemical settings. Samples for water quality were collected from the wells and piezometers from October 2015 through September 2018 at variable time intervals. Results of the monitoring identified disparate hydrologic and chemical responses to saltwater intrusion across the island. Specific conductance (an indicator of salinity) of groundwater beneath several marshes responded differently to changes in James River salinity. Groundwater response to changes in James River specific conductance appeared to be controlled by land-surface altitude and slope, differences in lateral and vertical sediment characteristics, distance from surface waters, and the degree of surface water/groundwater connectivity between channels and the aquifer.

Groundwater chemistry data from monitoring wells at Black Point, a low-altitude, upland setting, are in contrast with conditions observed in Island House observation wells, a high-altitude, upland setting. Specific conductance (less than 200 microsiemens per centimeter [μS/cm]) and pH (greater than 5.0) of groundwater beneath much of the uplands that characterize the Island House observation wells are typical of groundwater in noncarbonate sedimentary aquifers recharged by precipitation. At Black Point, specific conductance ranged from 2,490 to 15,200 μS/cm, and pH ranged from 3.1 to 6.6 standard units. At the Black Point observation wells, the most saline and dense water was at the water table rather than deeper in the aquifer, causing a density inversion that persisted throughout the study. The density inversion likely resulted from differences in permeability between the shallow clay and fine-grained sands and the deeper coarse-grained sand and gravel. Groundwater with the lowest pH was at the water table. As saline groundwater flows through organic sediment beneath the marshes, bacterial biodegradation of organic matter creates anoxic conditions. Continued biodegradation concomitantly reduces iron-oxide minerals in the sediment and sulfate in saline water. When oxygen is reintroduced into groundwater, iron and sulfur can reoxidize to form sulfuric acid, locally lowering the pH of the water.

This report describes the groundwater monitoring network design, rationale for site selection, monitoring approach, and results of monitoring from October 2015 through September 2018. Maps of inundation at selected water-level altitudes are included to identify the risk to archaeological, cultural, and ecological resources. The monitoring results of the hydrology and chemistry data are interpreted, and the different hydrologic and chemical settings are described. The implications of the study results for management decisions are presented, and suggestions for improving the monitoring network are included.