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Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss., 7, 3879-3930, 2010
© Author(s) 2010. This work is distributed
under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
Review Status
This discussion paper has been under review for the journal Hydrology and Earth System Sciences (HESS). A final paper in HESS is not foreseen.
Simple estimation of fastest preferential contaminant travel times in the unsaturated zone: application to Rainier Mesa and Shoshone Mountain, Nevada
B. A. Ebel and J. R. Nimmo
US Geological Survey, 345 Middlefield Rd., Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

Abstract. Simulating contaminant transport in unsaturated zones with sparse hydraulic property information is a difficult, yet common, problem. When contaminant transport may occur via preferential flow, simple modeling approaches can provide predictions of interest, such as the first arrival of contaminant, with minimal site characterization. The conceptual model for unsaturated zone flow at two areas within the Nevada Test Site, Rainier Mesa and Shoshone Mountain, establishes the possibility of preferential flow through lithologies between potential radionuclide sources and the saturated zone. Lithology, saturated or near-saturated conditions in portions of the rock matrix, and relatively high recharge rates may act in concert at Rainier Mesa to promote preferential flow, despite the semi-arid climate. After identifying preferential flow as a possible contaminant transport process at Rainier Mesa and Shoshone Mountain, we apply a simple model to estimate fastest unsaturated travel times for conservatively-transported radionuclides to initially reach the saturated zone. Preferential flow travel times at Rainier Mesa are tens to hundreds of years for non-ponded water sources and one to two months for continuously-ponded water sources. If preferential flow occurs at Shoshone Mountain, the fastest travel times are approximately twice the Rainier Mesa estimates. A siliceous rock unit is present at Shoshone Mountain that may provide a barrier to preferential flow; if so, estimated transport times increase to more than a thousand years. Our analysis of unsaturated transport of radionuclides via preferential flow, using a relatively simple model, suggests that contaminated locations associated with continuously-supplied water sources, such as effluent ponds and water-filled tunnels, may have significantly shorter radionuclide travel times than locations not associated with such sources. The simple approach demonstrated here for estimating travel times can be useful in situations where predictions are needed by managers for the fastest arrival of contaminants, yet budgetary or time constraints preclude more rigorous analysis, and when additional model estimates are needed for comparison (i.e. model abstraction).

Citation: Ebel, B. A. and Nimmo, J. R.: Simple estimation of fastest preferential contaminant travel times in the unsaturated zone: application to Rainier Mesa and Shoshone Mountain, Nevada, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci. Discuss., 7, 3879-3930, doi:10.5194/hessd-7-3879-2010, 2010.
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