Ground water is the main source of domestic and public supply in the Carson River Basin. Ground water originates as precipitation primarily in the Sierra Nevada in the western part of Carson and Eagle Valleys, and flows down gradient in the direction of the Carson River through Dayton and Churchill Valleys to a terminal sink in the Carson Desert. Because radionuclides dissolved in ground water can pose a threat to human health, the distribution and sources of several naturally occurring radionuclides that contribute to gross-alpha and gross-beta activities in the study area were investigated. Generally, alpha and beta activities and U concentration increase from the up-gradient to down-gradient hydrographic areas of the Carson River Basin, whereas 222Rn concentration decreases. Both 226Ra and 228Ra concentrations are similar throughout the study area. Alpha and beta activities and U concentration commonly exceed 100 pCi/l in the Carson Desert at the distal end of the flow system. Radon-222 commonly exceeds 2,000 pCi/l in the western part of Carson and Eagle Valleys adjacent to the Sierra Nevada. Radium-226 and 228Ra concentrations are <5 pCi/l. Four ground water samples were analyzed for 210Po and one sample contained a high concentration of 21 pCi/l. Seven samples were analyzed for 210Pb; six contained <3 pCi/l and one contained 12 pCi/l. Thorium-230 was detected at concentrations of 0.15 and 0.20 pCi/l in two of four samples. Alpha-emitting radionuclides in the ground water originated from the dissolution of U-rich granitic rocks in the Sierra Nevada by CO2, oxygenated water. Dissolution of primary minerals, mainly titanite (sphene) in the granitic rocks, releases U to the water. Dissolved U is probably removed from the water by adsorption on Fe- and Mn-oxide coatings on fracture surfaces and fine-grained sediment, by adsorption on organic matter, and by coprecipitation with Fe and Mn oxides. These coated sediments are transported throughout the basin by fluvial processes. Thus, U is transported as dissolved and adsorbed species. A rise in the water table in the Carson Desert because of irrigation has resulted in the oxidation of U-rich organic matter and dissolution of U-bearing coatings on sediments, producing unusually high U concentration in the ground water. Alpha activity in the ground water is almost entirely from the decay of U dissolved in the water. Beta activity in ground water samples is primarily from the decay of 40K dissolved in the water and ingrowth of 238U progeny in the sample before analysis. Approximately one-half of the measured beta activity may not be present in ground water in the aquifer, but instead is produced in the sample after collection and before analysis. Potassium-40 is primarily from the dissolution of K-containing minerals, probably K-feldspar and biotite. Radon-222 is primarily from the decay of 226Ra in the aquifer materials. Radium in the ground water is thought to be mainly from alpha recoil associated with the decay of Th in the aquifer material. Some Ra may be from dissolution (or desorption) or Ra-rich coatings on sediments. ?? 1993.
Additional publication details
Radionuclides in ground water of the Carson River Basin, western Nevada and eastern California, U.S.A.