Estimation of Hydraulic Properties Influencing Recharge and Contaminant Transport through Complex Vadose Zones by Analyzing Perched Water Data from the 1994 Large-Scale Infiltration Test at the Idaho National Laboratory

Friday, 19 December 2014
Kaitlyn M Creasey and John R Nimmo, USGS, Menlo Park, CA, United States
Layers of strong geologic contrast within the vadose zone can control recharge and contaminant transport to underlying aquifers. Above the eastern Snake River Plain Aquifer, multiple sedimentary interbeds are interspersed between fractured basalt. These interbeds have a variety of thicknesses and hydraulic properties, and can impede water flow, which allows perched water to collect on the interbeds. The Large-Scale Infiltration Test (LSIT) of 1994 at the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) maintained a circular pond, 200 meters in diameter, at a constant head for 20 days. Monitoring wells were arranged in circles of different radii around and within the pond, and perched water levels on a major sedimentary interbed, 55 meters below ground surface, were measured over time. Data showed that water formed a mound on the interbed before seeping through the interbed. Such behavior is consistent with a hypothesis of rapid flow through the fractured basalt being impeded by the sedimentary interbed.

In 2014, the USGS, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Energy, used a modified version of a Hantush (1967) equation to model the time-dependent perched water table heights from the LSIT as a function of radial distance from the pond center. The modeled volume change between time-steps and the known inflows to the pond were used in a mass balance to estimate the time-varying volume of water seeping through the interbed. This volume of water, the height of perched water, and the interbed thickness were used in Darcy’s Law to estimate the effective saturated hydraulic conductivity of the impeding interbed. Results indicate a slightly higher effective conductivity than laboratory measurements of small core samples taken from the interbed, reflecting the presence of fractures or other heterogeneities that facilitate field-scale flow through the interbed. Applied to other locations, this method can improve estimates of recharge and contaminant transport to underlying aquifers.