Nonpoint source (NPS) pollution of groundwater: What is the impact of aquifer, soil, and land use spatial variability on our ability to predict future nitrate, salt concentrations

Non-point source (NPS) pollution has degraded groundwater quality of unconsolidated sedimentary basins over many decades. Properly conceptualizing NPS pollution from the well scale to the regional scale leads to complex and expensive numerical models: Key controlling factors of NPS pollution - recharge rate, leakage of pollutants, and soil and aquifer hydraulic properties - are spatially and, for recharge and pollutant leakage, temporally variable. This leads to high uncertainty in predicting well pollution. On the other hand, concentration levels of some key NPS contaminants (salinity, nitrate) vary within a limited range (<2 orders of magnitude); and significant mixing occurs across the aquifer profile along the most critical compliance surface: drinking water wells with their extended vertical screen length. Here, we investigate, whether these two unique NPS contamination conditions reduce uncertainty such that simplified spatiotemporal representation of recharge and contaminant leakage rates and of hydraulic conductivity are justified when modeling NPS pollution. We employ a Monte Carlo-based stochastic framework to assess the impact of model homogenization on key management metrics for NPS contamination. Results indicate that travel time distributions are relatively insensitive to the spatial variability of recharge and contaminant loading, while capture zone and contaminant time series exhibit some sensitivity to source variability. In contrast,homogenization of aquifer heterogeneity significantly affects the uncertainty assessment of travel times and capture zone delineation. Surprisingly, regional statistics of well concentration time series are fairly well reproduced by a series of equivalent homogeneous aquifers, highlighting the role of NPS solute mixing along well screens.

Preferred Citation

Henri, C., T. Harter (2020), On the conceptual complexity of non-point source management: Impact of spatial variability. Hydrol. and Earth Systems Science (in print), doi:10.5194/hess-2019-499 (open access)

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