Effects of Geologic Setting on Contaminant Transport in Deltaic Aquifers

Coastal deltaic aquifers are vulnerable to degradation from seawater intrusion, geogenic and anthropogenic contamination, and groundwater abstraction. The distribution and transport of contaminants are highly dependent on the subsurface sedimentary architecture, such as the presence of channelized features that preferentially conduct flow. Surface deposition changes in response to sea-level rise (SLR) and sediment supply, but it remains unclear how these surface changes affect the distribution and transport of groundwater solutes in aquifers. Here, we explore the influence of SLR and sediment supply on aquifer heterogeneity and resulting effects on contaminant transport. We use realizations of subsurface heterogeneity generated by a process-based numerical model, DeltaRCM, which simulates the evolution of a deltaic aquifer with different input sand fractions and rates of SLR. We simulate groundwater flow and solute transport through these deposits in three contamination scenarios: (a) vertical transport from widespread contamination at the land surface, (b) vertical transport from river water infiltration, and (c) lateral seawater intrusion. The simulations show that the vulnerability of deltaic aquifers to seawater intrusion correlates to sand fraction, while vertical transport of contaminants, such as widespread shallow contamination and river water infiltration, is influenced by channel stacking patterns. This analysis provides new insights into the connection between the depositional system properties and vulnerability to different modes of groundwater contamination. It also illustrates how vulnerability may vary locally within a delta due to depositional differences. Results suggest that groundwater management strategies may be improved by considering surface features, location within the delta, and the external forcings during aquifer deposition. Plain Language Summary: The findings of this study provide insight into the vulnerability of deltaic aquifers to three contamination processes: (a) widespread contaminant transport from the land surface, (b) river water infiltration, and (c) seawater intrusion. We consider how contamination is affected by the location of contaminants and the processes associated with the accumulation of sediments in deltas. Our work shows that vulnerability to contamination depends on how the aquifer is deposited. The results also demonstrate that the distribution of sandy channels preserved in the subsurface, as well as rivers on the surface, controls vertical contaminant transport. We find that these effects vary from upstream to downstream in the delta because of spatial differences in depositional processes. These findings will help to improve predictions of groundwater contamination and manage groundwater development in deltas around the world.
Copyright 2022 American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved. This article was originally published in Water Resources Research. The version of record is available at: https://doi.org/10.1029/2022WR031943. This article will be embargoed until 02/25/2023.
Xu, Z., Hariharan, J., Passalacqua, P., Steel, E., Chadwick, A., Paola, C., et al. (2022). Effects of geologic setting on contaminant transport in deltaic aquifers. Water Resources Research, 58, e2022WR031943. https://doi.org/10.1029/2022WR031943