The role of cation exchange in the retardation of ammonium (NH4+) and potassium (K+) transport in a shallow sand and gravel aquifer was evaluated by use of observed distributions of NH4+ and K+ within a plume of sewage-contaminated groundwater, small-scale tracer injection tests, and batch sorption experiments on aquifer material. Both NH4+ and K+ were transported ???2 km in the 4-km-long contaminant plume (retardation factor, Rf = 2.0). Sediments from the NH4+-containing zone of the plume contained significant quantities of KCl-extractable NH4+ (extraction distribution coefficient, Kd,extr = 0.59-0.87 mL/g of dry sediment), and when added to uncontaminated sediments, NH4+ sorption followed a linear isotherm. Small-scale tracer tests demonstrated that NH4+ and K+ were retarded (Rf =3.5) relative to a nonreactive tracer (Br-). Sorption of dissolved NH4+ was accompanied by concomitant release of calcium (Ca2+), magnesium (Mg2+), and sodium (Na+) from aquifer sediments, suggesting involvement of cation exchange. In contrast, nitrate (NO3-) was not retarded and cleanly separated from NH4+ and K+ in the small-scale tracer tests. This study demonstrates that transport of NH4+ and K+ through a sand and gravel aquifer can be markedly affected by cation-exchange processes even at a clay content less than 0.1%.
Additional publication details
Retardation of ammonium and potassium transport through a contaminated sand and gravel aquifer: The Role of cation exchange