Ground water age and nitrate distribution within a glacial aquifer beneath a thick unsaturated zone

C. T. Johnston, P. G. Cook, S. K. Frape, L. N. Plummer, E. Busenberg, R. J. Blackport

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72 Citations (Scopus)


The impact on ground water quality from increasing fertilizer application rates over the past 40 years is evaluated within a glacial aquifer system beneath a thick unsaturated zone. Ground water ages within the aquifer could not be accurately determined from the measured distribution of 3H and as a result, chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) and 3H/3He dating techniques were applied. Beneath a 25 m thick unsaturated zone, ground water ages based on CFC-11 concentrations were greater than 3H/3He ground water ages by 6 to 10 years, due to the time lag associated with the diffusion of CFCs through the unsaturated zone. Using the corrected CFC-11 and 3H/3He ground water ages and the estimated travel time of 3H within the unsaturated zone, the approximate position of ground water recharged since the mid-1960s was determined. Nitrate concentrations within post mid-1960s recharge were generally elevated and near or above the drinking water limit of 10 mg-N/L. In comparison, pre mid-1960s recharge had nitrate concentrations <2.5 mg-N/L. The elevated NO3- concentrations in post mid-1960s recharge are attributed mainly to increasing fertilizer application rates between 1970 and the mid- to late 1980s. Anaerobic conditions suitable for denitrification are present within pre mid-1960s recharge indicating that removal of DO is a slow process taking tens of years. Over the next 10 to 20 years, nitrate concentrations at municipal well fields that are currently capturing aerobic ground water recharged near the mid-1960s are expected to increase because of the higher fertilizer application rates beginning in the 1970s and 1980s.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)171-180
Number of pages10
JournalGround water
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 1998
Externally publishedYes


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