US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Journal of Hydrology, 130 (1992) 367-378


The US Geological Survey has maintained a network of stations to collect samples for the measurement of tritium concentrations in precipitation and streamflow since the early 1960s. Tritium data from outflow waters of river basins draining 4500-75 000 km2 are used to determine average residence times of water within the basins. The basins studied are the Colorado River above Cisco, Utah: the Kissimmee River above Lake Okeechobee, Florida; the Mississippi River above Anoka, Minnesota; the Neuse River above Streets Ferry Bridge near Vanceboro, North Carolina; the Potomac River above Point of Rocks. Maryland; the Sacramento River above Sacramento, California: the Susquehanna River above Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The basins are modeled with the assumption that the outflow in the river comes from two sources prompt (within-year) runoff from precipitation, and flow from the long-term reservoirs of the basin. Tritium concentration in the outflow water of the basin is dependent on three factors: (1) tritium concentration in runoff from the long-term reservoir, which depends on the residence time for the reservoir and historical tritium concentrations in precipitation; (2) tritium concentrations in precipitation (the within-year runoff component); (3) relative contributions of flow from the long-term and within-year components. Predicted tritium concentrations for the outflow water in the river basins were calculated for different residence times and for different relative contributions from the two reservoirs. A box model was used to calculate tritium concentrations in the long-term reservoir. Calculated values of outflow tritium concentrations for the basin were regressed against the measured data to obtain a slope as close as possible to 1. These regressions assumed an intercept of zero and were carried out for different values of residence time and reservoir contribution to maximize the fit of modeled versus actual data for all the above rivers. The final slopes of the fitted regression lines ranged from 0.95 to 1.01 (correlation coefficient > 0.96) for the basins studied. Values for the residence time of waters within the basins and average relative contributions of the within-year and long-term reservoirs to outflow were obtained. Values for river basin residence times ranged from 2 years for the Kissimmee River basin to 20 years for the Potomac River basin. The residence times indicate the time scale in which the basin responds to anthropogenic inputs. The modeled tritium concentrations for the basins also furnish input data for urban and agricultural settings where these river waters are used.