A Stream-Based Methane Monitoring Approach for Evaluating Groundwater Impacts Associated with Unconventional Gas Development



This article is corrected by:

  1. Errata: Erratum Volume 51, Issue 5, 809, Article first published online: 4 September 2013

Corresponding author: Utah Water Science Center, US Geological Survey, Salt Lake City, UT; 801-908-5000; fax: 801-908-5001; heilweil@usgs.gov


Gaining streams can provide an integrated signal of relatively large groundwater capture areas. In contrast to the point-specific nature of monitoring wells, gaining streams coalesce multiple flow paths. Impacts on groundwater quality from unconventional gas development may be evaluated at the watershed scale by the sampling of dissolved methane (CH4) along such streams. This paper describes a method for using stream CH4 concentrations, along with measurements of groundwater inflow and gas transfer velocity interpreted by 1-D stream transport modeling, to determine groundwater methane fluxes. While dissolved ionic tracers remain in the stream for long distances, the persistence of methane is not well documented. To test this method and evaluate CH4 persistence in a stream, a combined bromide (Br) and CH4 tracer injection was conducted on Nine-Mile Creek, a gaining stream in a gas development area in central Utah. A 35% gain in streamflow was determined from dilution of the Br tracer. The injected CH4 resulted in a fivefold increase in stream CH4 immediately below the injection site. CH4 and δ13CCH4 sampling showed it was not immediately lost to the atmosphere, but remained in the stream for more than 2000 m. A 1-D stream transport model simulating the decline in CH4 yielded an apparent gas transfer velocity of 4.5 m/d, describing the rate of loss to the atmosphere (possibly including some microbial consumption). The transport model was then calibrated to background stream CH4 in Nine-Mile Creek (prior to CH4 injection) in order to evaluate groundwater CH4 contributions. The total estimated CH4 load discharging to the stream along the study reach was 190 g/d, although using geochemical fingerprinting to determine its source was beyond the scope of the current study. This demonstrates the utility of stream-gas sampling as a reconnaissance tool for evaluating both natural and anthropogenic CH4 leakage from gas reservoirs into groundwater and surface water.