U.S. Department of Defense


Date of this Version



Environmental Geosciences, (March 2012) v. 19, no. 1 , pp. 33–44. DOI:10.1306/eg.12141111012


Most surface water and shallow groundwater occurring in northeastern Nebraska are of the calcium bicarbonate type, with minor concentrations (e.g., 10–200 mg/L) of sulfate (SO4). Examination of historical water quality data (major cations and anions) for Ponca Creek, a predominantly ephemeral streamin northeastern Nebraska, revealed that SO4 concentrations ranged from about 110 to almost 1000mg/L and contribute to a calcium sulfate hydrochemical facies. Consequently, most SO4 concentrations were above the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency secondary maximum contaminant level in drinking water of 250 mg/L. Sulfate concentrations for the same period for a nearby stream, Verdigre Creek, range from about 20 to 120 mg/L. Research into probable sources of the elevated SO4 in Ponca Creek revealed that a Late Cretaceous shale, the Pierre Shale, occurs at or near the land surface throughout most of the creek’s drainage area, whereas alluvium, other Quaternary deposits, or the Tertiary Ogallala Formation comprises the streambed in Verdigre Creek. The Pierre Shale, encompassing soils formed on this Cretaceous shale, is rich in sulfate-bearing minerals (e.g., gypsum, pyrite, jarosite) that comprise the principal source of the high sulfate in drainage basin soils, alluvium, creek discharge, and shallow groundwater of the Ponca Creek watershed. A public domain geochemical speciation software (VisualMINTEQ) was used to investigate aqueous SO4 geochemistry of Ponca Creek flow. Calculated saturation indices for Ponca Creek waters suggest that they are slightly undersaturated with respect to gypsum and anhydrite despite significant sulfate dissolution and are slightly supersaturated with respect to calcite in numerous samples.