Chemical and isotopic methods for quantifying ground-water recharge in a regional, semiarid environment

By:  and 



The High Plains aquifer underlying the semiarid Southern High Plains of Texas and New Mexico, USA was used to illustrate solute and isotopic methods for evaluating recharge fluxes, runoff, and spatial and temporal distribution of recharge. The chloride mass-balance method can provide, under certain conditions, a time-integrated technique for evaluation of recharge flux to regional aquifers that is independent of physical parameters. Applying this method to the High Plains aquifer of the Southern High Plains suggests that recharge flux is approximately 2% of precipitation, or approximately 11 ± 2 mm/y, consistent with previous estimates based on a variety of physically based measurements. The method is useful because long-term average precipitation and chloride concentrations in rain and ground water have less uncertainty and are generally less expensive to acquire than physically based parameters commonly used in analyzing recharge. Spatial and temporal distribution of recharge was evaluated by use of δ2H, δ18O, and tritium concentrations in both ground water and the unsaturated zone. Analyses suggest that nearly half of the recharge to the Southern High Plains occurs as piston flow through playa basin floors that occupy approximately 6% of the area, and that macropore recharge may be important in the remaining recharge. Tritium and chloride concentrations in the unsaturated zone were used in a new equation developed to quantify runoff. Using this equation and data from a representative basin, runoff was found to be 24 ± 3 mm/y; that is in close agreement with values obtained from water-balance measurements on experimental watersheds in the area. Such geochemical estimates are possible because tritium is used to calculate a recharge flux that is independent of precipitation and runoff, whereas recharge flux based on chloride concentration in the unsaturated zone is dependent upon the amount of runoff. The difference between these two estimates yields the amount of runoff to the basin.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Chemical and isotopic methods for quantifying ground-water recharge in a regional, semiarid environment
Series title Groundwater
DOI 10.1111/j.1745-6584.1995.tb00302.x
Volume 33
Issue 3
Year Published 1995
Language English
Publisher Wiley
Contributing office(s) Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 11 p.
First page 458
Last page 468
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page