Characterizing Groundwater Chemistry and Recharge in the Critical Zone of an Agricultural Claypan Watershed

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College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science


Soils with low permeability horizons (e.g., claypans) are vulnerable to loss of nutrients through surface runoff along with preferential flow paths through the restrictive horizon to deeper aquifers. Partitioning between these hydrologic pathways is important to determine transport processes and develop strategies that mitigate stream contamination. Our objective was to investigate controls on groundwater chemistry and recharge pathways using natural geochemical tracers in the Goodwater Creek Experimental Watershed in Missouri, U.S. Groundwater samples were collected during 2011–2017 from 32 piezometers ranging from 0.13 to 16 m deep along with stream water and precipitation. Diagnostic tools of mixing models indicated that chemistry of perched water directly above the claypan and shallow groundwater immediately below was controlled primarily by chemical equilibrium. Five solutes behaved conservatively in most deep piezometers (>5 m), reflecting mixing of two end members and the lack of significant denitrification processes. End member mixing analysis showed that the deeper groundwater originated primarily from groundwater at similar depths, often upslope or from strata directly above, with small contributions from perched water, highlighting the importance of both horizontal and vertical preferential recharge pathways. Vertical pathways are likely dictated by soil heterogeneity throughout the critical zone and do not occur synchronously with precipitation events or simultaneously over all piezometer locations. The complex recharge pathways provide stochastic conduits for nitrate transport to deeper aquifers where legacy stores accumulate, presenting a significant challenge for water quality management in watersheds with restrictive soil horizons and spatially and temporally heterogeneous preferential flow pathways, including the Mississippi River Basin.

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Water Resources Research