Evaluation of Chemical and Hydrologic Processes in the Eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer Based on Results from Geochemical Modeling, Idaho National Laboratory, Eastern Idaho

Professional Paper 1837-B
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy



Nuclear research activities at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Idaho National Laboratory (INL) produced liquid and solid chemical and radiochemical wastes that were disposed to the subsurface resulting in detectable concentrations of some waste constituents in the eastern Snake River Plain (ESRP) aquifer. These waste constituents may affect the water quality of the aquifer and may pose risks to the eventual users of the aquifer water. To understand these risks to water quality the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the DOE, conducted geochemical mass-balance modeling of the ESRP aquifer to improve the understanding of chemical reactions, sources of recharge, mixing of water, and groundwater flow directions in the shallow (upper 250 feet) aquifer at the INL.

Modeling was conducted using the water chemistry of 127 water samples collected from sites at and near the INL. Water samples were collected between 1952 and 2017 with most of the samples collected during the mid-1990s. Geochemistry and isotopic data used in geochemical modeling consisted of dissolved oxygen, carbon dioxide, major ions, silica, aluminum, iron, and the stable isotope ratios of hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon.

Geochemical modeling results indicated that the primary chemical reactions in the aquifer were precipitation of calcite and dissolution of plagioclase (An60) and basalt volcanic glass. Secondary minerals other than calcite included calcium montmorillonite and goethite. Reverse cation exchange, consisting of sodium exchanging for calcium on clay minerals, occurred near site facilities where large amounts of sodium were released to the ESRP aquifer in wastewater discharge. Reverse cation exchange acted to retard the movement of wastewater-derived sodium in the aquifer.

Regional groundwater inflow was the primary source of recharge to the aquifer underlying the Northeast and Southeast INL Areas. Birch Creek (BC), the Big Lost River (BLR), and groundwater from BC valley provided recharge to the North INL Area, and the BLR and groundwater from BC and Little Lost River (LLR) valleys provided recharge to the Central INL Area. The BLR, groundwater from the BLR and LLR valleys and the Lost River Range, and precipitation provided recharge to the Northwest and Southwest INL Areas. The primary source of recharge west and southwest of the INL was groundwater inflow from BLR valley. Upwelling geothermal water was a small source of recharge at two wells. Aquifer recharge from surface water in the northern, central, and western parts of the INL indicated that the aquifer in these areas was a dynamic, open system, whereas the aquifer in the eastern part of the INL, which receives little recharge from surface water, was a relatively static and closed system.

Sources of recharge identified from isotope ratios and geochemical modeling (major ion concentrations) were nearly identical for the North, Northeast, Southeast, and Central INL Areas, which indicated that both methods probably accurately identified the sources of recharge in these areas. Conversely, isotope ratios indicated that the BLR and groundwater from the LLR valley provided most recharge to the western parts of the Northwest and Southwest INL Areas, whereas geochemical modeling results indicated a smaller area of recharge from the BLR and groundwater from the LLR valley, a larger area of recharge from the Lost River Range, and recharge of groundwater from the BLR valley that extended to the west INL boundary. The results from geochemical modeling probably were more accurate because major ion concentrations, but not isotope ratios, were available to characterize groundwater from the BLR valley and the Lost River Range. 

Sources of recharge identified with a groundwater flow model (using particle tracking) and geochemical modeling were similar for the Northeast and Southeast INL Areas. However, differences between the models were that the geochemical model represented (1) recharge of groundwater from the Lost River Range in the western part of the INL, whereas the flow model did not, (2) recharge of groundwater from the BC and BLR valleys extending farther south and east, respectively, than the flow model, and (3) more recharge from the BLR in the Southwest INL Area than the flow model.

Mixing of aquifer water beneath the INL included (1) mixing of regional groundwater and water from the BC valley in the Northeast and Southeast INL Areas and (2) mixing of surface water (primarily from the BLR) and groundwater across much of the North, Central, Northwest, and Southwest INL Areas. Localized recharge from precipitation mixed with groundwater in the Northwest and Southwest INL Areas, and localized upwelling geothermal water mixed with groundwater in the Central and Northeast INL Areas. Flow directions of regional groundwater were south in the eastern part of the INL and south-southwest at downgradient locations. Groundwater from the BC and LLR valleys initially flowed southeast before changing to south-southwest flow directions that paralleled regional groundwater, and groundwater from the BLR valley initially flowed south before changing to a southsouthwest direction.

Wastewater-contaminated groundwater flowed south from the Idaho Nuclear Technology and Engineering Center (INTEC) infiltration ponds in a narrow plume, with the percentage of wastewater in groundwater decreasing due to dilution, dispersion, and (or) degradation from about 60‒80 percent wastewater 0.7‒0.8 mile (mi) south of the INTEC infiltration ponds to about 1.4 percent wastewater about 15.5 mi south of the INTEC infiltration ponds. Wastewater contaminated groundwater flowed southeast and then southwest from the Naval Reactors Facility industrial waste ditch, with the percentage of wastewater in groundwater decreasing from about 100 percent wastewater adjacent to the waste ditch to about 2 percent wastewater about 0.6 mi south of the waste ditch.

Suggested Citation

Rattray, G.W., 2019, Evaluation of chemical and hydrologic processes in the eastern Snake River Plain aquifer based on results from geochemical modeling, Idaho National Laboratory, eastern Idaho: U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1837-B (DOE/ID-22248), 85 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/pp1837B.

ISSN: 2330-7102 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Geochemistry Data
  • Sources of Solutes
  • Geochemical Modeling
  • Hydrologic Interpretation of Model Results
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Glossary
  • Appendixes 1–2

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Evaluation of chemical and hydrologic processes in the eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer based on results from geochemical modeling, Idaho National Laboratory, eastern Idaho
Series title Professional Paper
Series number 1837-B
DOI 10.3133/pp1837B
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Idaho Water Science Center
Description viii, 85 p.
Country United States
State Idaho
Other Geospatial Idaho National Laboratory