Electricity Map Show saltwater in Aquifers

Researchers have transformed pulses of electrical current sent 1,000 feet underground into a picture of where seawater has infiltrated freshwater aquifers along the Monterey Bay coastline.

The findings, published in the Journal of Hydrology, help explain factors that control the phenomenon, called saltwater intrusion, and could help improve groundwater models that local water managers use to make decisions about pumping groundwater to meet drinking or farming needs.

“The hope is that local water managers can use these findings to better identify regions most impacted by saltwater intrusion where targeted management practices can be most effectively implemented,” says study co-author Meredith Goebel, a PhD candidate at Stanford University’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences.

“In the same way that medical imaging has revolutionized the approach to managing human health, I believe that Earth imaging using geophysical methods can revolutionize the approach to managing the health of our groundwater systems,” says Professor Rosemary Knight, Goebel’s graduate advisor who specializes in adapting geophysical imaging tools to monitor and manage freshwater resources.

Often irreversible

According to the United Nations, more than half the world’s population lives within 37 miles (60 kilometres) of the coast, and three-quarters of all large cities are located in coastal areas. Many coastal communities rely on groundwater to satisfy their drinking and farming water needs. But removing too much of that groundwater can change the fluid pressure of underground aquifers, drawing seawater into coastal aquifers and corrupting water supplies. Saltwater intrusion is often irreversible.

To determine the extent of saltwater intrusion in the Monterey Bay region, the research team used a geophysical imaging technique called electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) to map the salinity of groundwater along a 28-mile (45-kilometre) stretch of coastline from Aptos to Monterey. ERT measures a property called electrical resistivity. Seawater is electrically conductive due to its high salt content, while freshwater is electrically resistive.

ERT could provide a cheaper and better alternative than the current method used to monitor saltwater intrusion, which involves drilling “sentinel” wells at specific locations. “Unlike wells, which only give you information at one location, ERT gives you a full two-dimensional slice with spatial coverage that is just not possible with wells,” Knight says.

Cheaper alternative

Sentinel wells are also expensive: Four of the wells used to monitor saltwater intrusion along Monterey Bay cost nearly $1 million to drill. In contrast, the new survey cost approximately $200,000.

ERT surveys could also be repeated at the same spot to observe changes over time, says study coauthor Adam Pidlisecky, the chief research officer at Aranz Geo, who conducted the research while at the University of Calgary in Canada. “Looking at differences through time can often be more helpful than trying to understand a single image.”

The study, which is the longest and deepest of its kind, began with a phone tip six years ago. “A hydrologist working in the Monterey area told me that there was a lot of interest in what’s happening with saltwater intrusion along the coast and suggested it could be an interesting project for my group,” says Knight, who is also affiliated with the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

When she contacted local city officials for permission to start her survey, some of them couldn’t quite believe their ears. “One’s response to me was, ‘I just spent hundreds of thousands of dollars drilling a well, and you’re telling me you can do this by walking along the beach?”‘ she says.

Electrodes in the sand

Securing the required permits from cities and private landowners took close to a year, but in the fall of 2014, the team was ready to begin their survey.

Over the course of about two weeks, researchers worked with engineers from the engineering company WorleyParsons to lay out a long string of electrical cables along the beach. The cables were punctuated by 4-foot steel electrodes sunk into the sand.

After a series of electrodes were in place, the team pumped tiny pulses of electricity through the connecting wire. The current spread below ground, and by measuring the voltage between pairs of electrodes the team was able to create a resistivity map of the subsurface. Less resistance meant more saltwater lay below. Once the team surveyed a section of coastline they pulled out the stakes and repeated the process elsewhere.

The survey involved spending long hours in the sun hauling heavy equipment and painstakingly covering nearly the entire Monterey Bay coastline one mile at a time, but the effort paid off.

“This is the first regional-scale view of the subsurface that clearly shows the impact of geology on fluid distribution as well as the influence of near-coast pumping,” Pidlisecky says. “Throughout the process, we have actively connected with groundwater managers and technical professionals in the region, as well as the public at large. We are excited to take this engagement further with the publication and sharing of these results through an interactive 3D web portal.”

The data the team collected yielded a colourful, two-dimensional resistivity map of the coastline that reveals complex patterns of saltwater intrusion in the region down to a depth of 1,000 feet and highlights the interplay between the geology and human activities controlling the region’s distribution of fresh- and saltwater.

For example, the team discovered a dynamic body, or “lens,” of freshwater near Marina formed through infiltration from overlying storm water runoff ponds in an area that was otherwise undergoing saltwater intrusion. The map also showed that efforts by the Pajaro Water Management District to reduce groundwater pumping by providing recycled water to irrigators is working as planned.

The new findings could help fill in numerous gaps in the data of groundwater resources, says Keith Van Der Maaten, general manager of the Marina Coast Water District.

“The current mapping of the freshwater-saltwater interface in our region has many issues and is misleading. The ERT data will help give us a complete picture so we can move forward with our water supply planning and groundwater sustainability efforts.”

Aquifers from the air

Since electrical resistivity is a property present in all materials, ERT could have applications beyond water management. “Any time what you are trying to image in the subsurface has a different resistivity than the material surrounding it, you should be able to use this method,” Goebel says.

Knight is not finished with the Monterey Bay region just yet, however. Her team has partnered with the Marine Coast Water District to conduct a follow-up airborne helicopter survey that employs a different geophysical technique to map subsurface electrical resistivity in the region’s inland areas.

“Instead of just one slice, the airborne survey is going to give us hundreds of slices and allow us to put together a three-dimensional picture of the underground freshwater distribution,” Goebel says.

Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences, the S.D. Bechtel Jr. Foundation, and the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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