Inferring shallow groundwater flow in saprolite and fractured rock using environmental tracers

P. G. Cook, D. K. Solomon, W. E. Sanford, E. Busenberg, L. N. Plummer, R. J. Poreda

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The Ridge and Valley Province of eastern Tennessee is characterized by (1) substantial topographic relief, (2) folded and highly fractured rocks of various lithologies that have low primary permeability and porosity, and (3) a shallow residuum of medium permeability and high total porosity. Conceptual models of shallow groundwater flow and solute transport in this system have been developed but are difficult to evaluate using physical characterization or short-term tracer methods due to extreme spatial variability in hydraulic properties. In this paper we describe how chlorofluorocarbon 12, 3H, and 3He were used to infer groundwater flow and solute transport in saprolite and fractured rock near Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In the shallow residuum, fracture spacings are <0.05 m, suggesting that concentrations of these tracers in fractures and in the matrix have time to diffusionally equilibrate. The relatively smooth nature of tracer concentrations with depth in the residuum is consistent with this model and quantitatively suggests recharge fluxes of 0.2 to 0.4 m yr-. In contrast, groundwater flow within the unweathered rock appears to be controlled by fractures with spacings of the order of 2 to 5 m, and diffusional equilibration of fractures and matrix has not occurred. For this reason, vertical fluid fluxes in the unweathered rock cannot be estimated from the tracer data.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1501-1509
Number of pages9
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Jun 1996
Externally publishedYes


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