Confined (or buried) aquifers of glacial origin overlain by till confining units provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of Minnesota residents. The sustainability of these groundwater resources is not well understood because hydraulic properties of till that control vertical groundwater fluxes (leakage) to underlying aquifers are largely unknown. The U.S. Geological Survey, Iowa State University, Minnesota Geological Survey, and Minnesota Department of Health investigated hydraulic properties and groundwater flow through till confining units using field studies and heuristic MODFLOW simulations. Till confining units in the following late-Wisconsinan stratigraphic units (with locations in parentheses) were characterized: Des Moines lobe till of the New Ulm Formation (Litchfield, Minnesota), Superior lobe till of the Cromwell and Aitkin Formations (Cromwell, Minn.), and Wadena lobe till of the Hewitt Formation (hydrogeology field camp [HFC] near Akeley, Minn.). Pre-Illinoian till of the Good Thunder formation (Olivia, Minn.) was also characterized.
Hydraulic and geochemical field data were collected from sediment cores and a series of five piezometer nests. Each nest consisted of five to eight piezometers screened at short vertical intervals in hydrostratigraphic units including (if present) surficial aquifers, till confining units, confined/buried aquifers, and underlying bedrock. Till hydraulic conductivity was estimated from slug tests (horizontal [Kh]) and constant-rate aquifer tests in the confined aquifer (vertical [Kv]). Travel times through the till were evaluated with Darcy’s law and stable isotope concentrations. A series of heuristic MODFLOW simulations were used to evaluate groundwater fluxes through till across the range of till hydraulic properties and pumping rates observed at the field sites.
The field data demonstrated variability in hydraulic properties between and within till stratigraphic units horizontally and vertically. The variability in hydraulic properties within and between sites resulted in substantial differences in groundwater flux through till. A conceptual understanding that emerges from the vertical till profiles is that they are not homogeneous hydrostratigraphic units with uniform properties; rather, each vertical sequence is a heterogeneous mixture of glacial sediment with differing abilities to transmit water.
Till thicknesses varied from 60 to 166 feet, and till textures ranged from a sandy loam (Hewitt Formation, HFC site) to a silt loam/clay loam (Good Thunder formation, Olivia site). Till Kh varied by one to three orders of magnitude within each piezometer nest. Four piezometer nests had downward hydraulic gradients ranging from 0.04 to 0.56, and one nest had a slight upward hydraulic gradient of 0.02. The Cromwell, HFC, and Litchfield 1 sites were examples of “leaky” tills with high Kv (0.001 to 1.1 feet per day [ft/d]) and geometric mean Kh (0.03 to 0.07 ft/d) and extensive vertical hydraulic connectivity between the confined aquifer and the overlying till. Estimated groundwater travel times through these sites ranged from 1 to 81 years, and two of these sites had tritium throughout their till profiles. The tills at the other two sites, Olivia and Litchfield 2, were effective confining units that had low Kv (0.001 to 0.0005 ft/d) and geometric mean Kh (0.0002 to 0.004 ft/d). The till piezometers at these sites had no drawdown response to short-term (up to 10 hours for Olivia and up to 5 days for Litchfield) high-capacity pumping from the confined aquifer. Estimated groundwater travel times through the tills at these sites ranged from 165 to nearly 1,800 years, and tritium was only detected in the upper one-third of these till profiles. Across all sites, the till vertical anisotropy (ratio of Kh to Kv) ranged by four orders of magnitude from 0.05 at the Cromwell nest to 70 at the Litchfield 1 nest. Stable isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen indicate that groundwater throughout all five till profiles is younger than the last glacial advance into Minnesota at about 11,000 years ago.
The heuristic modeling demonstrated that, for understanding sustainability of groundwater pumping from confined aquifers, knowledge of till hydraulic properties is just as important as knowledge of aquifer hydraulic properties. Substantial differences in groundwater fluxes into and through till were observed across hydrogeologic settings representative of the field sites. Over long periods of time (hundreds of years), pumping-induced hydraulic gradients are established in confined aquifer systems and, even in low hydraulic conductivity tills, these pumping-induced hydraulic gradients increase leakage into and through till compared to ambient conditions.
In conclusion, groundwater flowing vertically downward through till confining units (leakage) replenishes water pumped from confined aquifers. Till hydraulic properties, such as those presented in this report, provide important information that can be used to quantify leakage rates through till. Till hydraulic properties are variable over short distances and profoundly affect leakage rates, demonstrating the importance of site-specific till hydraulic data for evaluating the sustainability of groundwater withdrawals from confined aquifers.
- Digital Object Identifier: 10.3133/sir20205127
- Source: USGS Publications Warehouse (indexId: sir20205127)