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Water-quality and geochemical variability in the Little Arkansas River and Equus aquifer, south-central Kansas, 2001–16

August 19, 2019

The city of Wichita’s water supply currently (2019) comes from two primary sources: Cheney Reservoir and the Equus Beds aquifer. The Equus Beds aquifer storage and recovery project was developed to help the city of Wichita meet increasing future water demands. Source water for artificial recharge comes from the Little Arkansas River during above-base-flow conditions, is treated using National Primary Drinking Water Regulations as a guideline, and is injected into the Equus Beds aquifer through recharge wells or surface spreading basins for later use. The Equus Beds aquifer storage and recovery project currently (2019) consists of two coexisting phases. Phase I began in 2007 and captures Little Arkansas River water and indirect streambank diversion well water for aquifer recharge using 4 wells and 2 recharge basins. Phase II began in 2013 and currently (2019) includes a surface-water treatment facility, a river intake facility, eight recharge injection wells, and a third recharge basin. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the City of Wichita, completed this study to summarize water-quality and geochemical variability of the Equus Beds aquifer. Data in this report can be used to establish baseline conditions before implementing artificial aquifer recharge further, document groundwater quality, evaluate changing conditions, identify environmental factors affecting groundwater, provide science-based information for decision making, and help meet regulatory monitoring requirements.

Physicochemical properties were measured and water-quality data were collected from 2 Little Arkansas River surface-water sites and 63 Equus Beds aquifer groundwater sites, including 38 areal assessment index wells (IWs) during 2001 through 2016. Data collection included discrete samples and additional continuous measurements at selected sites. Discretely collected samples were analyzed for physicochemical properties, dissolved solids, primary ions, nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus species), organic carbon, indicator bacteria, trace elements, arsenic species, organic compounds, and radioactivity. This report focuses discussion on aquifer water quality. Federal drinking-water criteria were used to evaluate aquifer water quality. Primary drinking-water criteria are those that are enforceable for public drinking water. Secondary criteria are those that can cause aesthetics or tastes that are unpleasant.

Continuously collected data at a subset of sites included streamflow, groundwater levels, water temperature, specific conductance, pH, oxidation-reduction potential (ORP), dissolved oxygen, turbidity, nitrate plus nitrite, and fluorescent dissolved organic matter. Continuous measurement of physicochemical properties in near-real time allowed characterization of Little Arkansas River surface water and Equus Beds aquifer groundwater during conditions and time scales that would not have been possible otherwise and served as a complement to discrete water-quality sampling. During 2001 through 2016, less than 1 percent of chloride and nitrate plus nitrite, 7 percent of dissolved iron, 48 percent of dissolved manganese, 12 percent of dissolved arsenic, and 39 percent of atrazine detections in surface-water samples exceeded their respective Federal primary or secondary drinking-water criteria. None of the surface-water samples collected exceeded the Federal sulfate criterion, and every sample had detections of total coliform bacteria during the study.

Constituents of concern in the Equus Beds aquifer exceeded their respective Federal criteria throughout the study period and included chloride, sulfate, nitrate plus nitrite, Escherichia coli (E. coli), total coliforms, and dissolved iron and arsenic species. About 5 percent of shallow (less than 80 feet) and 7 percent of deep (greater than 80 feet) IW chloride sample concentrations exceeded the secondary Federal criterion of 250 milligrams per liter (mg/L). Chloride tended to exceed its criterion in shallow and deep wells along the Arkansas River and near Burrton, Kansas, an area with past oil and gas activities. Chloride concentrations near Burrton were larger in the deep parts of the aquifer. About 18 percent of shallow and 13 percent of deep IW sulfate sample concentrations exceeded the secondary Federal criterion of 250 mg/L. Mean sulfate concentrations tended to exceed the criterion in the central part of the study area. Shallow IW mean nitrate plus nitrite (hereafter referred to as “nitrate”) was substantially larger than mean deep IW nitrate. Geochemical conditions in the deeper aquifer reduced forms of nitrogen to species such as ammonia. About 15 percent of shallow and less than 1 percent of deep IW nitrate sample concentrations exceeded the Federal criterion of 10 mg/L. Mean shallow IW nitrate concentrations exceeded the criterion in the northeastern and southeastern parts of the study area; on average, deep IW nitrate concentrations did not exceed the criterion. E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria detections were usually at or near the detection limit. E. coli was detected in 3 percent of shallow and deep IWs, and fecal coliform bacteria were detected in 8 percent of shallow and 6 percent of deep IWs. Total coliforms were detected in 24 percent of shallow and 12 percent of deep IWs. E. coli coliphage was detected in two shallow IW samples (1 percent of samples) at the detection limit and was not detected in deep IW samples.

Dissolved iron was detected in 51 percent of shallow and 62 percent of deep IW samples. Dissolved iron concentrations exceeded the secondary Federal criterion of 0.3 mg/L in 38 percent of shallow and 46 percent of deep IW samples. Mean dissolved iron concentrations were largest mostly in the central and northwest part of the study area corresponding to an area of the aquifer where aquifer material is more clay-rich. The distribution of large dissolved iron concentrations was similar to that of large sulfate concentrations. About 55 percent of shallow and 92 percent of deep IW dissolved manganese samples exceeded the secondary Federal criterion of 0.05 mg/L. Almost all samples from the central and northern parts of the study area had mean dissolved manganese concentrations that exceeded the Federal criterion in the shallow part of the aquifer. Mean dissolved manganese concentrations in the shallow part of the aquifer were substantially large (greater than 1,000 micrograms per liter [μg/L]) in wells near the Little Arkansas River and in the central part of the study area because of chemically reducing conditions in the aquifer that likely related to larger percentages of clay in the aquifer material.

Concentrations of dissolved arsenic species generally were larger in the deep parts of the aquifer. Arsenite was the dominant form of arsenic on average in shallow (52 percent) and deep (55 percent) IWs. About 12 percent of shallow and 34 percent of deep IW dissolved arsenic sample concentrations exceeded the Federal primary drinking criterion of 10 μg/L. Shallow IW dissolved arsenic concentrations were larger near the Little Arkansas River and the center of the study area; large shallow IW dissolved arsenic concentrations (10–50 μg/L) in the center of the study area correspond to areas that have had the most water-level recovery since the historical low in 1993. Mean ORP in shallow IWs generally decreased with increasing water-level depths and were inversely related to mean dissolved arsenic concentrations because of more reducing conditions (smaller ORP) at larger depths below the land surface. Larger dissolved arsenic concentrations in the shallow parts of the aquifer were associated with decreases in water levels and a subsequent decrease in ORP and thus more reducing conditions.

Atrazine was detected in about 58 percent of shallow and 28 percent of deep IWs and did not exceed the primary Federal criterion of 3 μg/L in any groundwater samples. Atrazine concentrations in shallow IWs generally were largest in the northwest part of the study area near the North Branch Kisiwa Creek, and atrazine concentrations in deep IWs generally were largest most often in the southern part of the study area. Gross α radioactivity concentrations exceeded the primary Federal criterion of 15 picocuries per liter in 4 percent of shallow IW samples. Gross α and gross β radioactivity concentrations generally were larger in the southern third of the aquifer.

Most groundwater-sample-simulated minerals saturation indices (SIs) were consistently negative (undersaturated). Minerals that had SI values that were consistently or typically positive (oversaturated) included iron oxide, hydroxide, and quartz-group minerals. Several SI values for arsenic- and manganese-bearing minerals were consistently negative. Some manganese-bearing mineral SI values ranged from undersaturated to oversaturated in shallow and deep IWs during the study. Several carbonate minerals in shallow and deep IWs varied across their equilibrium state. Calcite SI values were larger more often in the deep parts of the aquifer and did not show a clear distributional pattern. Mean and median calcite SI values for shallow and deep IWs were negative (undersaturated) indicating the potential for calcite dissolution if calcite is present for a substantial part of the study period. However, some individual calcite SI values in this study indicated saturation and subsequent calcite precipitation may occur in the study area, potentially resulting in formation of calcite mineral deposits that may reduce efficiency of injection wells. SI values with respect to iron hydroxide varied across their equilibrium states. Mean and median SI values with respect to iron hydroxide were undersaturated in shallow and deep IWs; however, some samples had positive SI values indicating there is potential for iron hydroxide precipitation, possibly caused by leaching and oxidation of iron-containing minerals, like pyrite, in the aquifer material.

Publication Year 2019
Title Water-quality and geochemical variability in the Little Arkansas River and Equus aquifer, south-central Kansas, 2001–16
DOI 10.3133/sir20195026
Authors Mandy L. Stone, Brian J. Klager, Andrew C. Ziegler
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2019-5026
Index ID sir20195026
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Kansas Water Science Center