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Assessing the Relative Bioavailability of DOC in Regional Groundwater Systems


Corresponding author: U.S. Geological Survey, South Carolina Water Science Center, Columbia, SC 29210;


It has been hypothesized that the degree to which a hyperbolic relationship exists between concentrations of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) and dissolved oxygen (DO) in groundwater may indicate the relative bioavailability of DOC. This hypothesis was examined for 73 different regional aquifers of the United States using 7745 analyses of groundwater compiled by the National Water Assessment (NAWQA) program of the U.S. Geological Survey. The relative reaction quotient (RRQ), a measure of the curvature of DOC concentrations plotted versus DO concentrations and regressed to a decaying hyperbolic equation, was used to assess the relative bioavailability of DOC. For the basalt aquifer of Oahu, Hawaii, RRQ values were low (0.0013 mM−2), reflecting a nearly random relationship between DOC and DO concentrations. In contrast, on the island of Maui, treated sewage effluent injected into a portion of the basalt aquifer resulted in pronounced hyperbolic DOC-DO behavior and a higher RRQ (142 mM−2). RRQ values for the 73 aquifers correlated positively with mean concentrations of ammonia, dissolved iron, and manganese, and correlated negatively with mean pH. This indicates that greater RRQ values are associated with greater concentrations of the final products of microbial reduction reactions. RRQ values and DOC concentrations were negatively correlated with the thickness of the unsaturated zone (UNST) and depth to the top of the screened interval. Finally, RRQ values were positively correlated with mean annual precipitation (MAP), and the highest observed RRQ values were associated with aquifers receiving MAP rates ranging between 900 and 1300 mm/year. These results are uniformly consistent with the hypothesis that the hyperbolic behavior of DOC-DO plots, as quantified by the RRQ metric, can be an indicator of relative DOC bioavailability in groundwater systems.

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