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Timescales of water-quality change in a karst aquifer, south-central Texas

July 31, 2019

Understanding the drivers and timescales over which groundwater quality changes informs groundwater management, use, and protection. To better understand timescales of water-quality change over short (daily to monthly) and long (seasonal to decadal) timescales, the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Enhanced Trends Network (ETN) program instrumented and sampled three wells in the Edwards aquifer in south-central Texas. The wells were instrumented to provide high-frequency continuous (subhourly) water-quality data (temperature, pH, specific conductance, and dissolved oxygen), which were augmented by the collection of discrete samples (about 6 per year) for a range of geochemical constituents (including selected isotopes and age tracers). ETN data (2013–2017) are considered with data from additional sites for the same time period, and also historical records (over more than 80 years) of climatic and hydrologic conditions. During the four-year study, hydrologic conditions transitioned from very dry to very wet. Sites in the updip/unconfined part of the aquifer showed notable changes in water level and geochemistry (1) in response to rainfall/recharge events, and (2) over the multiyear dry/wet cycle. Sites in the downdip/confined part of the aquifer showed changes in water level/spring discharge over similar timescales, although the response is more muted. Geochemistry at the downdip/confined sites, however, varied slowly and minimally, indicating that the geochemical response of the deeper aquifer is decoupled from recent hydrologic responses. Changes at the updip/unconfined sites reflect mixing with recent recharge, whereas the downdip/confined sites were dominated by mineral-solution reactions resulting from longer (decadal) residence times. Mean groundwater ages interpreted from measured age tracers and lumped parameter models range from 7 to >700 years (where mixed with premodern downdip water) but were mostly modern. The aquifer is characterized by updip-to-downdip trends in geochemistry with respect to water-rock interaction and groundwater age. Fourier spectral analysis of historical records indicate hydrologic variability has occurred at dominant periods of 30 and 15 years; in conjunction with age tracers, these results provide insight into timescales at which the aquifer’s public supply is vulnerable to changes in the water quality of recharge.