Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, Department of


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A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Science Major: Geosciences Under the Supervision of Professor F. Edwin Harvey Lincoln, Nebraska August 2010 Copyright 2010 Sarah E. Foster


The wetlands of south-central Nebraska’s Rainwater Basin region are considered of international importance as a habitat for millions of migratory birds, but are being endangered by agricultural practices. The Rainwater Basin extends across 17 counties and covers 4,000 square miles. The purpose of this study was to assemble baseline chemical data for several representative wetlands across the Rainwater Basin region, and determine the use of these chemical data for investigating groundwater recharge.

Eight representative wetlands were chosen across the Rainwater Basin to monitor surface and groundwater chemistry. At each site, a shallow well and deep well were installed and sampled once in the summer of 2009 and again in the spring of 2010. Wetland surface water was sampled monthly from April, 2009 to May, 2010. Waters were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, pesticides and oxygen-18 and deuterium isotopes at the University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory.

Geochemical analysis of surface waters presents a range of temporal and spatial variations. Wetlands had variable water volumes, isotopic compositions, ion chemistries and agricultural contaminant levels throughout the year and, except for a few trends, theses variations cannot be predicted with certainty year-to-year or wetland-to-wetland. Isotopic compositions showed evaporation was a contributor to water loss, and thus, did impact water chemistry.

Surface water nitrate concentrations ranged from <0.10 to 4.04 mg/L. The nitrate levels are much higher in the groundwater, ranging from <0.10 to 18.4 mg/L, and are of concern because they are found above the maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 mg/L. Atrazine concentrations in surface waters ranged from <0.05 to 10.3 ppb. Groundwater atrazine concentrations ranged from <0.05 to 0.28 ppb. The high atrazine concentrations in surface waters are of concern as they are above the MCL of 3 ppb, and the highest levels occur during the spring bird migration.

Most sampled groundwaters had detectable tritium indicating a mix of modern (<5 to 10 years old) and submodern (older than 1950s) recharge. The groundwater also had differences in chemical and isotope composition, and in some cases, increased nitrate concentrations, between the two sampling periods. Modern groundwater tritium ages and changes in groundwater chemical and isotopic compositions may indicate connections with surface waters in the Rainwater Basin.