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  Solute Age and Groundwater Management in ASEAN


Dr.Warangkana Larbkich1



The demand of groundwater use for agricultural, industrial and domestic purposes in Thailand has been increased over decades (Department of Groundwater Resources, 2012). Such activities e.g. land use with pesticides and fertilizers, mining, or accidental release of chemicals into the aquifer can cause contamination in groundwater, which is difficult to be remediated (Liggett and Talwar, 2009). An essential step to groundwater remediation is the removal of the contamination sources. However, although the source of contamination is removed, contamination will persist at groundwater wells until all of the contamination that has recharged the aquifer prior to source removal has passed the well (Larbkich and Neupauer, 2013).


Groundwater age is defined as the amount of time it takes a groundwater parcel to travel from its point of recharge (either land surface or water table) to a given location in the aquifer (Goode 1996; Stoner et al., 1997; Cornaton and Perrochet 2006; Kazami et al., 2006). Since a tracer travels through the aquifer at the same rate as a water particle, groundwater age also represents the amount of time an aqueous chemical tracer has been in the aquifer. The similarity in behavior of water and tracer movement has led to the application of groundwater age as a tool to assess the groundwater well contamination. An older groundwater represents a longer amount of time that an aqueous contaminant takes to reach the well. This affects the groundwater well contamination in two competing ways. First, wells at the locations with older groundwater are more distant from the source of contamination than at the locations with younger groundwater. Because of dispersion, contaminant concentrations at the more distant locations are lower. Thus, wells at the locations with older groundwater should represent lower levels of contamination. However, in some situations, an older groundwater can lead to increased groundwater well contamination. For example, if the wells are contaminated and the source is removed to prevent further contamination, these wells will remain contaminated until all of the contaminated water that has already recharged the aquifer passes them. In wells with older groundwater, contamination will persist for a longer time.


Solute age & How solute age is different from groundwater age

For sorbing solutes (e.g. trichloroethylene, which is halocarbon commonly used by industries (Department of Groundwater Resources, 2008; Somkul and Noophan, 2010)), the solute does not travel through the aquifer at the same rate as a water particle; thus, groundwater age is not an appropriate tool for assessing groundwater well contamination for these chemicals. Instead, the concept of solute age is introduced to represent the amount of time that a solute particle has been in the aquifer. The governing equation of solute age can be developed from the governing equation of groundwater age. For non-sorbing solutes, solute age in a water sample is equivalent to groundwater age. However, for sorbing solutes, solute age in a water sample is greater than the groundwater age because sorbing solutes travel at a slower rate than water particles. In the context of groundwater well contamination, if a well is contaminated with a sorbing solute and the source of contamination is eliminated, the contamination will persist for a longer time than would be expected based on groundwater age.

Application of Solute Age for Groundwater Management in ASEAN

Solute age can be applied to evaluate the effectiveness of riverbank filtration (RBF) systems, which is a surface water treatment technology that uses an aquifer adjacent to a river as a natural filter (Kuehn and Mueller, 2000; Eckert and Irmscher 2006). The river water is commonly contaminated due to agricultural runoff, effluents from industries and communities (Sharma et al., 2012). In RBF system, a well in the aquifer near the river draws water from both the aquifer and the river, and contaminants in the river water undergo biological and chemical reactions while traveling through the subsurface materials. The natural processes, including sorption in the riverbed layer and biodegradation and sorption along the flow path, cause a decrease in contaminant levels as river water travels to the RBF well (de Vet et al., 2010; Abdalla and Shamrukh, 2011;  Berelkamp et al., 2014). RBF has been used to remove suspended particles, organic matter, nutrients, microbiological pathogens, and chemicals (Department of Groundwater Resources, 2011). Because the contaminated water is naturally filtered in this method, RBF requires less additional chemical treatment and is considered as a cost-effective technology (Ray et al., 2003; Berelkamp et al., 2014; Department of Groundwater Resources, 2014). Countries in ASEAN have lunched the studies and pilot projects on using RBF system as a supplementary source of clean water supply. In Thailand, Department of Groundwater Resources has conducted the pilot study and design on the project of the groundwater source development by RBF systems. This project is under the department’s master plan for conjunctive use between surface water and groundwater according to the national plan for water resources management. In addition, the implementation of an RBF system is the preparation of water supply for needs in the future (Department of Groundwater Resources, 2014). Malaysia has also recently conducted the pilot study project on RBF system in Selangor state, Langat river basin. In Malaysia, rainfall continuously recharges the rivers, and river water is the primary source of water supply. However, to manage water resources is challenging because of increasing in water demand and the environmental deterioration as development and economic activities in the country become more prevalent. Also, pollution has either made surface water unsuitable for treatment or caused the treatment costs to rise unexpectedly. Thus, RBF system has been interested as the technology to provide groundwater that can be used as the supplementary source of clean water without neglecting the source potential of the surface water (Shamsuddin et al., 2014a, 2014b). Additionally, Vietnam launched the pilot study project of clean water supply by using an RBF system in 2005. The project was conducted at Hong Phong village, Binh Thuan province, where rainwater has been decreased by 20 percent, and the area suffers from drought during dry season. Also, the RBF system was implemented as well as the livestock was moved away from surface water, and then the level of contamination was evaluated. (International Hydrological Programme, 2012). Solute age is useful in designing RBF systems to ensure sufficient time for reaction along the flowpaths between a river and an RBF well. This is not limited only to the case that river water is contaminated by a tracer but also for the case that river water is contaminated by a sorbing solute. Solute age can be used to calculate the amount of time that the contaminants travel from the river to the pumping well. An RBF system is effective if that time is sufficiency long. In addition, solute age can be used to calculate the contaminant concentration at the well in order to assess the effectiveness of an RBF system in decreasing the contamination (Larbkich, 2014).



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1 Plan and Policy Analyst, Planning Division, Department of Ground Water Resources.


Any opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of Groundwater Resources. Author will accept responsibility for any errors.


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