Evaluating an unconfined aquifer by analysis of age-dating tracers in stream water

D. K. Solomon, T. E. Gilmore, J. E. Solder, B. Kimball, D. P. Genereux

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

22 Scopus citations


The mean transit time (MTT) is a fundamental property of a groundwater flow system that is strongly related to the ratio of recharge rate to storage volume. However, obtaining samples for estimating the MTT using environmental tracers is problematic as flow-weighted samples over the full spectrum of transit times are needed. Samples collected from the base flow of a gaining stream in the North Carolina Coastal Plain (West Bear Creek) that were corrected for exchange with the atmosphere yielded environmental tracer concentrations (SF6 and CFC-11) very similar to flow-weighted values from nine or ten streambed piezometers that directly sampled groundwater during low streamflow. At higher streamflow on the falling limb of the hydrograph, stream tracer concentrations (after correction for gas exchange) were significantly higher than the flow-weighted mean from piezometers, consistent with dominance of the stream tracer signal by transient influx of surface water and/or younger subsurface water. The apparent MTT derived from SF6 in low flow stream water samples was 26 years, suggesting a groundwater recharge rate of about 210 mm/yr, that is consistent with vertical profiles obtained by sampling nested piezometers in the aquifer. When sampled under low flow conditions when streamflow consists of a high component of groundwater discharge, West Bear Creek appears to act as a flow-weighted integrator of transit times and, streamflow samples can provide fundamental information regarding groundwater recharge rate and MTT. Our study suggests that watershed-scale evaluation of some groundwater flow systems is possible without utilizing monitoring wells.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)8883-8899
Number of pages17
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 2015
Externally publishedYes


  • coastal plain
  • environmental tracers
  • gas exchange
  • groundwater age
  • groundwater mean transit time
  • unconfined aquifer

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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