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Groundwater quality and age of secondary bedrock aquifers in the glaciated portion of eastern Nebraska, 2016–18

August 4, 2021

The Eastern Nebraska Water Resources Assessment (ENWRA) project was initiated in 2006 to assist water managers by developing a hydrogeologic framework and water budget for the glaciated portion of eastern Nebraska. Within the ENWRA area, the primary groundwater sources for municipal, domestic, and irrigation water needs are provided by withdrawals from alluvial, buried paleovalley, and the High Plains aquifer (where present). Generally, other bedrock aquifers are considered a secondary water source. However, in some areas, such as parts of Sarpy and Nemaha Counties, these secondary bedrock aquifers are the only source of water within glaciated upland areas. To improve the understanding of the quality, geochemistry, and age of groundwater from bedrock aquifers, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the ENWRA group, which includes the Lewis and Clark, Lower Elkhorn, Lower Platte North, Lower Platte South, Nemaha, and Papio-Missouri River Natural Resources Districts, designed a study to sample 31 wells completed in the secondary bedrock aquifers and analyze samples for major ions, physical properties, nutrients, stable isotopes, and selected age tracers. Of the 31 samples collected for this report, 22 samples were collected from the Dakota aquifer contained in the Dakota Sandstone, 3 from the Niobrara aquifer contained in the Niobrara Formation of Colorado Group, and 6 from Paleozoic aquifers contained in undifferentiated Paleozoic-age units.

The results of this study indicate that major ion data collected from the Dakota aquifer can be used for assessing the quality, recharge source, and age of groundwater. Calcium bicarbonate dominant samples were characterized as modern or mixed, indicating that, in these areas, groundwater is unconfined and is recharged by precipitation and (or) surface water. If groundwater extraction rates exceed recharge rates, total dissolved solid concentrations may increase as a result of upwelling of groundwater from deeper units or formations, which can adversely affect groundwater quality. Sampling results presented in this report indicate water quality is good, but that groundwater in the Dakota aquifer with calcium bicarbonate water type may be vulnerable to surface contamination. In contrast, groundwater sampled from the Dakota aquifer, having a dominant water type other than calcium bicarbonate, generally has low dissolved oxygen and nitrate concentrations, and higher concentrations of total dissolved solids and trace elements, including iron and strontium. The geochemical characteristics of noncalcium bicarbonate samples from the Dakota aquifer indicated confining conditions and limited groundwater recharge from local precipitation. Apparent groundwater ages estimated from radiocarbon (carbon-14) sampling of noncalcium bicarbonate samples from the Dakota aquifer indicated that the time of groundwater recharge to the Dakota aquifer occurred during Pleistocene time. Depleted stable isotopes results indicate recharge during a colder climate. Groundwater under confined conditions is not easily recharged from precipitation or surface water. Future groundwater-level monitoring in locations where the Dakota aquifer appears to be confined could provide information to evaluate whether groundwater supplies remain sufficient to meet future municipal, domestic, and irrigation needs.

For the Niobrara aquifer and Paleozoic aquifers, the dominant water type was not a diagnostic indicator of recharge source, age, and groundwater quality as with the Dakota aquifer. Most likely this is because the host formation was dominated by calcium-carbonate-rich rocks; however, few samples were collected from these aquifers to be able to confirm this interpretation. Samples collected from wells completed in the Niobrara aquifer and Paleozoic aquifers and characterized as calcium sulfate water type have statistically significantly higher concentrations of total dissolved solids compared to other samples from the Niobrara aquifer and Paleozoic aquifers characterized as calcium bicarbonate. Given that six of the nine of samples collected from the Niobrara and Paleozoic aquifers indicated modern recharge, these secondary bedrock aquifers are reliant on precipitation to sustain groundwater levels and may be vulnerable to a multiyear drought. Well yields of the Niobrara and Paleozoic aquifers are dependent on the presence of secondary porosity and these units offer little storage. Samples collected from wells completed in Paleozoic aquifers were the most isotopically enriched and similar to modern precipitation and had the highest concentrations of nitrate, indicating that groundwater is affected by agricultural activities. Future groundwater sampling would be beneficial to characterize groundwater-quality changes within the Niobrara and Paleozoic aquifers over time.