High-elevation basins in Colorado are a major source of water for the central and western United States; however, acidic deposition may affect the quality of this water. Water that is retained in a basin for a longer period of time may be less impacted by acidic deposition. Sulfur-35 (35S), a short-lived isotope of sulfur (t( 1/2 ) = 87 days), is useful for studying short-time scale hydrologic processes in basins where biological influences and water/rock interactions are minimal. When sulfate response in a basin is conservative, the age of water may be assumed to be that of the dissolved sulfate in it. Three alpine-subalpine basins on granitic terrain in Colorado were investigated to determine the influence of basin morphology on the residence time of water in the basins. Fern and Spruce Creek basins are glaciated and accumulate deep snowpacks during the winter. These basins have hydrologic and chemical characteristics typical of systems with rapid hydrologic response times. The age of sulfate leaving these basins, determined from the activity of 35S, averages around 200 days. In contrast, Boulder Brook basin has broad, gentle slopes and an extensive cover of surficial debris. Its area above treeline, about one-half of the basin, is blown free of snow during the winter. Variations in flow and solute concentrations in Boulder Brook are quite small compared to Fern and Spruce Creeks. After peak snowmelt, sulfate in Boulder Brook is about 200 days older than sulfate in Fern and Spruce Creeks. This indicates a substantial source of older sulfate (lacking 35S) that is probably provided from water stored in pore spaces of surficial debris in Boulder Brook basin.
Additional publication details
Use of cosmogenic 35S for comparing ages of water from three alpine-subalpine basins in the Colorado Front Range