Widespread use of dry wells to dispose of roadside runoff has raised concern about the potential effects on the quality of groundwater on the Island of Hawai‘i. This study used semi-generic numerical models of groundwater flow and contaminant transport to assess the potential effect of dry wells on groundwater quality on the Island of Hawai‘i. The semi-generic models are generalized numerical groundwater-flow and solute-transport models that have a range of aquifer properties and regional groundwater gradients that are characteristic for the island. Several semi-generic models were created to study the effect of dry wells in different hydrogeologic conditions, such as different unsaturated-zone thicknesses or different aquifer characteristics. Results indicate that mixing of contaminated water from the surface with contaminant-free water in the saturated aquifer immediately reduces the contaminant concentration. The amount the concentration is reduced depends on the hydraulic properties of the aquifer in a given area, the thickness of the unsaturated zone, and whether the infiltration is focused in a small area of a dry well or spread naturally over a larger area. Model simulations indicate that focusing infiltration of contaminated runoff through a dry well can substantially increase contaminant concentrations in the underlying saturated aquifer relative to infiltration under natural conditions. Simulated concentrations directly beneath a dry well were nearly 8 times higher than the simulated concentrations directly beneath a broad infiltration area representing the natural condition. Where dry wells are present, contaminant concentrations in the underlying saturated aquifer are lower when the unsaturated zone is thicker and higher when the unsaturated zone is thinner. Contaminant concentrations decline quickly as the contaminant plume migrates, with the regional groundwater flow, away from the dry well. The differences among concentrations resulting from the various unsaturated-zone thicknesses also diminish with distance from the dry well. At a horizontal distance of about 700 ft downgradient from the dry well, all simulated maximum concentrations were less than 1 percent of the concentration in the infiltration water; at about 0.5 mi downgradient from the dry well, all simulated concentrations were equal to or less than 0.1 percent. Actual concentrations may be even lower than indicated by the models because of processes such as decay and reaction that were not simulated. Hydrologic and geologic differences from one location to the next also affect contaminant concentrations—simulations using models with properties representative of aquifers in the Hilo area resulted in lower overall concentrations than models with properties representative of aquifers in the Kona area. Results from this study can be used to assess how contaminants entering a dry well may affect receiving waters in a variety of situations on the Island of Hawai‘i. Better assessment would be obtained by using results from models having the most similar conditions (such as climate, hydraulic properties, regional groundwater gradient) to the dry well in question. The results of this study can help determine which dry wells are likely to have the greatest effect on nearby receiving waters and where more specific data and analyses may be needed.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Potential effects of roadside dry wells on groundwater quality on the Island of Hawai'i-Assessment using numerical groundwater models