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Relative risk of groundwater-quality degradation near California (USA) oil fields estimated from 3H, 14C, and 4He

June 5, 2021

Relative risks of groundwater-quality degradation near selected California oil fields are estimated by examining spatial and temporal patterns in chemical and isotopic data in the context of groundwater-age categories defined by tritium and carbon-14. In the Coastal basins, western San Joaquin Valley (SJV), and eastern SJV; 82, 76, and 0% of samples are premodern (pre-1953 recharge), respectively; and 3, 0, and 31% are modern (recharged during or after 1953), respectively. Carbon-14 and helium-4 data indicate most premodern samples are 1000 to 10,000 (33%) or >10,000 (50%) years old. Organic chemicals that could be associated with deeper hydrocarbon reservoirs (e.g. thermogenic gases and benzene) occur most frequently in premodern groundwater, suggesting premodern groundwater has a higher risk of degradation from upward migration of hydrocarbons than modern and mixed-age groundwater. Low sulfate concentrations in some premodern groundwater containing high thermogenic-methane concentrations (>28 mg/L) indicate methane attenuation associated with sulfate reduction can be limited in premodern groundwater. The more common occurrence of manufactured compounds, like tetrachloroethene, in modern and mixed-age groundwater than in premodern groundwater indicates modern and mixed-age groundwater has a higher risk of degradation from land-surface sources than premodern groundwater. Time-series data for chloride in groundwater affected by disposal of oil-field water in unlined ponds indicate some modern and mixed-age groundwater are susceptible to chemical migration within 2–3 km of surface sources. Timescales for diluting chloride concentrations in groundwater with fresh recharge once disposal ponds are decommissioned are shorter in mixed-age groundwater with large fractions of modern water (9–14 years in one example) than in mixed-age groundwater with large fractions of premodern water (no evidence of dilution after 12 years of monitoring in one example). The presence of predominantly premodern groundwater in the Coastal basins and western SJV indicates these areas have relatively high risk from upward migration of hydrocarbons, reduced methane attenuation capacity, and long dilution times, whereas predominantly modern- and mixed-age groundwater in the eastern SJV indicates this area has relatively high risk from chemical migration from land-surface sources and subsequent extensive spreading. Age-based characterizations of relative risk could inform the design of groundwater-monitoring programs near oil fields in terms of the spatial distribution of monitoring points relative to source areas and monitoring frequency and duration.