Soil, plant, and structural considerations for surface barriers in arid environments: Application of results from studies in the Mojave Desert near Beatty, Nevada

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Edited by: U.S. National Research Council



The suitability of a waste-burial site depends on hydrologic processes that can affect the near-surface water balance. In addition, the loss of burial trench integrity by erosion and subsidence of trench covers may increase the likelihood of infiltration and percolation, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the site in isolating waste. Although the main components of the water balance may be defined, direct measurements can be difficult, and actual data for specific locations are seldom available. A prevalent assumption is that little or no precipitation will percolate to buried wastes at an arid site. Thick unsaturated zones, which are common to arid regions, are thought to slow water movement and minimize the risk of waste migration to the underlying water table. Thus, reliance is commonly placed on the natural system to isolate contaminants at waste-burial sites in the arid West.

Few data are available to test assumptions about the natural soil-water flow systems at arid sites, and even less is known about how the natural processes are altered by construction of a waste-burial facility. The lack of data is the result of technical complexity of hydraulic characterization of the dry, stony soils, and insufficient field studies that account for the extreme temporal and spatial variations in precipitation, soils, and plants in arid regions. In 1976, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began a long-term study at a waste site in the Mojave Desert. This paper summarizes the findings of ongoing investigations done under natural-site and waste-burial conditions, and discusses how this information may be applied to the design of surface barriers for waste sites in arid environments.

The waste-burial site is in one of the most arid parts of the United States and is about 40 km northeast of Death Valley, near Beatty, Nev. (Figure 1). Precipitation averaged 108 mm/yr during 1981-1992. The water table is 85-115 m below land surface (Fischer, 1992). Sediments are largely alluvial and fluvial deposits (Nichols, 1987). Vegetation is sparse; creosote bush is the dominant species. The waste facility has been used for burial of low-level radioactive waste (1962-1992) and hazardous chemical waste (1970 to present). Burial-trench construction includes excavation of native soil, emplacement of waste, and backfilling with previously stockpiled soil. Only the most recently closed hazardous-waste trench (1991) incorporates a plastic liner in the cover. The surfaces of completed burial trenches and perimeter areas are kept free of vegetation.

Publication type Book chapter
Publication Subtype Book Chapter
Title Soil, plant, and structural considerations for surface barriers in arid environments: Application of results from studies in the Mojave Desert near Beatty, Nevada
Chapter 14
ISBN 0-309-05685-3
DOI 10.17226/5539
Year Published 1997
Language English
Publisher The National Academies Press
Publisher location Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s) Nevada Water Science Center, Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 11 p.
Larger Work Type Book
Larger Work Subtype Conference publication
Larger Work Title Barrier technologies for environmental management: Summary of a workshop
First page 68
Last page 78
Country United States
State Nevada
City Beatty
Other Geospatial Mojave Desert
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