Processes controlling colloid composition in a fractured and karstic aquifer in eastern Tennessee, USA
Groundwater was sampled from a number of wells along recharge pathways between fractured shale and karstic formations to evaluate the chemical and hydrologic mechanisms controlling the nature and abundance of groundwater colloids. The colloids recovered using low flow rate purging and sampling exhibited a composition and abundance consistent with lithology, flow paths, and effects of hydrology and aqueous chemistry on colloid mobilization and stability. In general, the larger-size colloids and Ca-containing colloids were more abundant in the karstic lithologies, while Na-containing colloids were more important in the shales. The composition of the colloids reflected recharge pathways from the fractured shale and dolomite formations on the ridges into the limestone in the valley floor. The Mg-colloids in the limestone reflect the possible contributions from the dolamite, while the Na, K, and Si reflect possible contributions from the shale. However, it was not possible to use the colloid composition as a signature to demonstrate colloid transport from one lithology to another. Mixing of recharge water from the shale with groundwater within the limestone formation and precipitation/dissolution reactions could account for the colloids present in the limestone without invoking transport of specific shale-derived colloids into the limestone formation. The abundance of colloids in groundwater appears to be controlled by both chemical factors affecting colloid stability, as well as physical factors related to hydrology (storm-driven recharge and water velocities). In general, colloids were more abundant in wells with low ionic strength, such as shallow wells in water table aquifers near sources of recharge at the top of the ridges. Increases in cation concentrations due to dissolution reactions along flow paths were associated with decreases in colloid abundance. However, in spite of elevated ionic strength, colloid concentrations tended to be unexpectedly high in karstic wells that were completed in cavities or water-bearing fractures. The higher levels of colloids appear to be related to storm-driven changes in chemistry or flow rates that causes resuspension of colloids settled within cavities and fractures.