Anthropogenic contaminants as tracers in an urbanizing karst aquifer
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Karst aquifers are uniquely vulnerable to contamination. In the Barton Springs segment of the karstic Edwards aquifer (Texas, U.S.A.), urban contaminants such as pesticides and volatile organic compounds frequently are detected in spring base flow. To determine whether contaminant concentrations change in response to storms, and if they therefore might act as tracers of focused recharge, samples were collected from Barton Springs at closely spaced intervals following three storms. Two herbicides (atrazine and simazine), two insecticides (carbaryl and diazinon), and a solvent (tetrachloroethene) described breakthrough curves over a 1-week period following one or more storms. The breakthrough curves were decomposed into two to five log-normal subcurves, which were interpreted as representing pulses of contaminants moving through the aquifer. Each subcurve could be used in the same way as an artificial tracer to determine travel time to and recovery at the spring. The contaminants have several advantages over artificial tracers: they represent the actual compounds of interest, they are injected essentially simultaneously at several points, and they are injected under those conditions when transport is of the most interest, i.e., following storms. The response of storm discharge, specific conductance, and contaminant loading at the spring depended on initial aquifer flow conditions, which varied from very low (spring discharge of 0.48 m3/s) to high (spring discharge of 2.7 m3/s): concentrations and recovery were the highest when initial aquifer flow conditions were low. This behavior provides information about aquifer structure and the influence of aquifer flow condition on transport properties.