Groundwater vulnerability to pollution in karst aquifers, considering key challenges and considerations: application to the Ubriquesprings in southern Spain

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Hydrogeology Journal


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Groundwater vulnerability mapping is one of the tools most often applied to analyse the sensitivity of karst aquifers to pollution. These maps aim to support stakeholders in decision-making and to promote land-use management compatible with water protection; however, the validation of these maps is still a challenge in many cases, triggering high uncertainty. For karst media, due to the strong heterogeneity in recharge mechanisms and hydraulic characteristics, validation is a significant stage and it must be inherent within the groundwater vulnerability assessment process. This work aims to assess the implementation of tools used for protecting the quality of water discharging or extracted from the Ubrique karst system in southern Spain, which supplies drinking water that is threatened by periodical pollution/turbidity episodes. A groundwater vulnerability map, attained by application of the COP method and validated by multiple in-situ observations, shows an extremely vulnerable system due to the absence of protective overlayers and the significant development of exokarst landforms, including shallow holes. This map could constitute the basis for defining protection zones for the Ubrique springs; however, their comprehensive protection requires the implementation of monitoring tools and an effective management strategy, through an early warning system that assures stable environmental and hydrogeological conditions and improves operational procedures associated with the drinking water service. This research establishes the strong relationship of the different methods applied to protect the source from contamination events, ranging from classical hydrodynamic and hydrochemical approaches to the implementation of protection zones and early warning groundwater quality monitoring networks.

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