Risk of groundwater contamination widely underestimated because of fast flow into aquifers

Hartmann, Andreas; Jasechko, Scott; Gleeson, Tom; Wada, Yoshihide; Andreo, Bartolomé; Barberá, Juan Antonio; Brielmann, Heike; Bouchaou, Lhoussaine; Charlier, Jean-Baptiste; Darling, W. George; Filippini, Maria; Garvelmann, Jakob; Goldscheider, Nico; Kralik, Martin; Kunstmann, Harald; Ladouche, Bernard; Lange, Jens; Lucianetti, Giorgia; Martín, José Francisco; Mudarra, Matías; Sánchez, Damián; Stumpp, Christine; Zagana, Eleni; Wagener, Thorsten. 2021 Risk of groundwater contamination widely underestimated because of fast flow into aquifers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 118 (20), e2024492.

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Groundwater pollution threatens human and ecosystem health in many regions around the globe. Fast flow to the groundwater through focused recharge is known to transmit short-lived pollutants into carbonate aquifers, endangering the quality of groundwaters where one quarter of the world’s population lives. However, the large-scale impact of such focused recharge on groundwater quality remains poorly understood. Here, we apply a continental-scale model to quantify the risk of groundwater contamination by degradable pollutants through focused recharge in the carbonate rock regions of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. We show that focused recharge is the primary reason for widespread rapid transport of contaminants to the groundwater. Where it occurs, the concentration of pollutants in groundwater recharge that have not yet degraded increases from <1% to around 20 to 50% of their concentrations during infiltration. Assuming realistic application rates, our simulations show that degradable pollutants like glyphosate can exceed their permissible concentrations by 3 to 19 times when reaching the groundwater. Our results are supported by independent estimates of young water fractions at 78 carbonate rock springs over Europe and a dataset of observed glyphosate concentrations in the groundwater. They imply that in times of continuing and increasing industrial and agricultural productivity, focused recharge may result in an underestimated and widespread risk to usable groundwater volumes.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
ISSN: 0027-8424
Additional Keywords: GroundwaterBGS, Groundwater
Date made live: 28 Jul 2021 14:00 +0 (UTC)

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