Tritium and Stable Isotopes of Precipitation and Surface Water in California

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Patrick Harms1, Jean E Moran1, Ate Visser2 and Bradley K Esser2, (1)California State University East Bay, Hayward, CA, United States, (2)Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, CA, United States
Tritium (3H) and stable isotopes (2H and 18O) are effective natural tracers of water molecules through the hydrologic system. The strong topographic gradient in California results in distinct isotopic signatures that are particularly effective in watershed studies. Past studies of meteoric tritium distribution within the United States have focused on large-scale trends, at low spatial resolution. Globally, tritium in precipitation is monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency contributing to the Global Network of Isotopes in Precipitation (GNIP) database. The two tritium monitoring stations in California contributing to the GNIP database were discontinued in 1976 (Santa Maria) and 1993 (Menlo Park). Surface water studies have focused on time series in major rivers nationwide or localized studies.

Our study focuses on high spatial resolution water isotope data collection in California. Over 140 tritium and stable water isotope samples were collected from surface water and direct precipitation during the 2013 Summer/Fall and 2014 Winter/Spring flow regimes and analyzed by helium accumulation and noble gas mass spectrometry. Surface water samples are collected as a proxy for precipitation and to investigate trends related to water residence times.

Tritium concentrations in precipitation show strong spatial trends, with higher concentrations at inland high elevation locations. Surface water tritium trends with spatial location (latitude and longitude) and elevation (reflecting the precipitation signal) and distance downstream (reflecting water residence times). A local meteoric water line (MWL) for California is developed from stable isotope data and analyzed in comparison to the global MWL. Results have implications for tritium tracer and water provenance studies.