Isotope Geochemistry and Chronology of Offshore Ground Water Beneath Indian River Bay, Delaware

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003-4192

ORCID iD and



Results of geophysical surveys in Indian River Bay, Delaware, indicate a complex pattern of salinity variation in subestuarine ground water. Fresh ground-water plumes up to about 20 meters thick extending hundreds of meters offshore are interspersed with saline ground water, with varying degrees of mixing along the salinity boundaries. It is possible that these features represent pathways for nutrient transport and interaction with estuarine surface water, but the geophysical data do not indicate rates of movement or nutrient sources and reactions. In the current study, samples of subestuarine ground water from temporary wells with short screens placed 3 to 22 meters below the sediment-water interface were analyzed chemically and isotopically to determine the origins, ages, transport pathways, and nutrient contents of the fresh and saline components. Apparent ground-water ages determined from chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), tritium (3H), and helium isotopes (3He and 4He) commonly were discordant, but nevertheless indicate that both fresh and saline ground waters ranged from a few years to at least 50 years in age. Tritium-helium (3H-3He) ages, tentatively judged to be most reliable, indicate that stratified offshore freshwater plumes originating in distant recharge areas on land were bounded by relatively young saline water that was recharged locally from the overlying estuary. Undenitrified and partially denitrified nitrate of agricultural or mixed origin was transported laterally beneath the estuary in oxic and suboxic fresh ground water. Ammonium produced by anaerobic degradation of organic matter in estuarine sediments was transported downward in suboxic saline ground water around the freshwater plumes. Many of the chemical and isotopic characteristics of the subestuarine ground waters are consistent with conservative mixing of the fresh (terrestrial) and saline (estuarine) endmember water types. These data indicate that freshwater plumes detected by geophysical surveys beneath Indian River Bay represent lateral continuations of the active surficial nitrate-contaminated freshwater flow systems originating on land, but they do not indicate directly the magnitude of fresh ground-water discharge or nutrient exchange with the estuary. There is evidence that some of the terrestrial ground-water nitrate is reduced before discharging directly beneath the estuary. Local estuarine sediment-derived ammonium in saline pore water may be a substantial benthic source of nitrogen in offshore areas of the estuary.

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USGS Numbered Series
Isotope Geochemistry and Chronology of Offshore Ground Water Beneath Indian River Bay, Delaware
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Water-Resources Investigations Report
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37 p.