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Tritium as an indicator of modern, mixed, and premodern groundwater age

September 5, 2019

Categorical classification of groundwater age is often used for the assessment and understanding of groundwater resources. This report presents a tritium-based age classification system for the conterminous United States based on tritium (3H) thresholds that vary in space and time: modern (recharged in 1953 or later), if the measured value is larger than an upper threshold; premodern (recharged prior to 1953) if the measured value is smaller than a lower threshold; or mixed if the measured value is between the two thresholds. Inclusion of spatially varying thresholds, rather than a single threshold, accounts for the observed systematic variation in 3H deposition across the United States. Inclusion of time-varying thresholds, rather than a single threshold, accounts for the date of sampling given the radioactive decay of 3H.

The efficacy of the tritium-based age classification system was evaluated at national and regional scales. The system was evaluated at a national scale by classifying samples from 1,788 public-supply wells distributed across 19 principal aquifers and comparing those results with expectations based on hydrogeologic principles. The regional-scale data are from five paired networks of shallow and deep wells (287 wells). As expected, modern groundwater is more prevalent in shallow wells than in deeper wells, in fractured-rock and carbonate aquifers as compared to clastic aquifers, in unconfined areas as compared to confined areas, and in humid climates as compared to arid climates. The results from a tritium-based age classification system compared favorably with the results of 14 previous studies of groundwater ages that used different age tracers and analytical methods. The wells and samples from the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer that had been analyzed using a more complex multi-tracer analysis were also analyzed using the tritium-based age classification system, and there was a close match between the two methods. The results from these various studies suggest that the tritium-based age classification system may be informative as a screening tool prior to selecting more expensive and complex age-dating tracers and methods, or to provide an explanatory variable for other water-quality data where more complex methods or tracers are not available.

This work improves on previous groundwater age classification using 3H by developing methods that (1) determine 3H thresholds for groundwater recharged in 1953 or later that minimize the misclassification of modern samples as mixed; (2) determine a pre-1953 threshold to estimate premodern background concentrations; and (3) add a mixed category to classify samples that are clearly neither entirely modern nor entirely premodern. As with any tritium-based approach, it can fail when the 3H record in precipitation does not accurately reflect the record of 3H in recharge

Publication Year 2019
Title Tritium as an indicator of modern, mixed, and premodern groundwater age
DOI 10.3133/sir20195090
Authors Bruce D. Lindsey, Bryant C. Jurgens, Kenneth Belitz
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5090
Index ID sir20195090
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center; Massachusetts Water Science Center; National Water Quality Assessment Program; New England Water Science Center; Pennsylvania Water Science Center; WMA - Earth System Processes Division