Innovative Environmental Tracer Techniques for Evaluating Sources of Spring Discharge from a Carbonate Aquifer Bisected by a River



Littlefield Springs discharge about 1.6 m3/s along a 10-km reach of the Virgin River in northwestern Arizona. Understanding their source is important for salinity control in the Colorado River Basin. Environmental tracers suggest that Littlefield Springs are a mixture of older groundwater from the regional Great Basin carbonate aquifer and modern (post-1950s) seepage from the Virgin River. While corrected 14C apparent ages range from 1 to 9 ka, large amounts of nucleogenic 4He and low 3He/4He ratios suggest that the carbonate aquifer component is likely even older Pleistocene recharge. Modeled infiltration of precipitation, hydrogeologic cross sections, and hydraulic gradients all indicate recharge to the carbonate aquifer likely occurs in the Clover and Bull Valley Mountains along the northern part of the watershed, rather than in the nearby Virgin Mountains. This high-altitude recharge is supported by relatively cool noble-gas recharge temperatures and isotopically depleted δ2H and δ18O. Excess (crustal) SF6 and 4He precluded dating of the modern component of water from Littlefield Springs using SF6 and 3H/3He methods. Assuming a lumped-parameter model with a binary mixture of two piston-flow components, Cl/Br, Cl/F, δ2H, and CFCs indicate the mixture is about 60% Virgin River water and 40% groundwater from the carbonate aquifer, with an approximately 30-year groundwater travel time for Virgin River seepage to re-emerge at Littlefield Springs. This suggests that removal of high-salinity sources upstream of the Virgin River Gorge would reduce the salinity of water discharging from Littlefield Springs into the Virgin River within a few decades.