The role of irrigation as a driving force for water and chemical movement to the central High Plains aquifer is uncertain because of the thick unsaturated zone overlying the aquifer. Water potentials and profiles of tritium, chloride, nitrate, and pesticide concentrations were used to evaluate water movement through thick unsaturated zones overlying the central High Plains aquifer at three sites in southwestern Kansas. One site was located in rangeland and two sites were located in areas dominated by irrigated agriculture. In 2000?2001, the depth to water at the rangeland site was 50 meters and the depth to water at the irrigated sites was about 45.4 meters. Irrigation at the study sites began in 1955?56.
Measurements of matric potential and volumetric water content indicate wetter conditions existed in the deep unsaturated zone at the irrigated sites than at the rangeland site. Total water potentials in the unsaturated zone at the irrigated sites systematically decreased with depth to the water table, indicating a potential existed for downward water movement from the unsaturated zone to the water table at those sites. At the rangeland site, total water potentials in the deep unsaturated zone indicate small or no potential existed for downward water movement to the water table.
Postbomb tritium was not detected below a depth of 1.9 meters in the unsaturated zone or in ground water at the rangeland site. In contrast, postbomb tritium was detected throughout most of the unsaturated zone and in ground water at both irrigated sites. These results indicate post-1953 water moved deeper in the unsaturated zone at the irrigated sites than at the rangeland site. The depth of the interface between prebomb and postbomb tritium and a tritium mass-balance method were used to estimate water fluxes in the unsaturated zone at each site. The average water fluxes at the rangeland site were 5.4 and 4.4 millimeters per year for the two methods, which are similar to the average water flux (5.1 millimeters per year) estimated using a chloride mass-balance method. Tritium profiles in the unsaturated zone at the irrigated sites were complicated by the presence of tritium-depleted intervals separating upper and lower zones containing postbomb tritium. If the interface between prebomb and postbomb tritium was at the top of the tritium-depleted interval and postbomb tritium detected beneath that interval was from the declining water table in the area, then the average water flux at the irrigated sites was estimated to be 21 to 54 millimeters per year. If postbomb tritium detected beneath the tritium-depleted interval was from bypass or preferential water movement through the local unsaturated zone instead of the declining water table, then the minimum water flux at the irrigated sites was estimated to be 106 to 116 millimeters per year. In either case, water fluxes at the irrigated sites were at least 4 to 12 times larger than the flux at the rangeland site, indicating irrigation was an important driving force for water movement through the unsaturated zone.
The presence of postbomb tritium and large nitrate and total pesticide concentrations (24 milligrams per liter as nitrogen and 0.923 microgram per liter, respectively) in ground water at the irrigated sites indicates irrigation water also was an important driving force for chemical movement to the water table. The persistence of a downward hydraulic gradient from the deep unsaturated zone to the water table at the irrigated sites, in addition to large nitrate and atrazine concentrations in deep soil water (34 milligrams per liter as nitrogen and 0.79 microgram per liter, respectively), indicate that the deep unsaturated zone will be a source of nitrate and atrazine to the aquifer in the future.