Faculty Publications


Effects of layered heterogeneity in subsurface geologic materials on solute transport under field conditions: A case study from northeastern Iowa, USA

Document Type



Agriculture, Capillary barrier, Contamination, Unsaturated zone, USA

Journal/Book/Conference Title

Hydrogeology Journal





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Last Page



In the Cedar River watershed of northeastern Iowa, USA, water quality in 17 out of 20 private wells indicates that groundwater is contaminated with nitrate from agricultural leachates. In nine of the wells, nitrate concentration exceeds the US Environmental Protection Agency recommended maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 45 mg/L (as NO3-) for drinking purposes. Solute-transport investigations determined that the surficial loam sediments, the Quaternary sand and gravel deposits, and the glacial till deposits form layered heterogeneity in the subsurface. The resulting conductivity contrast causes a capillary barrier, thereby altering the mechanisms of vertical tracer movement. Storm-water tracing with potassium bromide, corn fertilizer, and fluorescein dye indicates that macropore flow occurs only within the upper 0.9 m of loamy sediments. An average breakthrough concentration of 204 mg/L bromide at 0.3 m depth on day 3 after the storm event supports the hypothesis of macropore flow in the surficial soils. Fluorescein dye was recovered at a depth of 0.3 m with a peak concentration of 650 μg/L at approximately 5 days after the storm event. The loamy sediment layer is underlain by the Iowan Pebble Band, a pebbly layer admixed with sand, developed in post-glacial time. In the field experiments, preferential flow of the tracers was predominantly vertical within the loamy sediments but rapidly changed to a horizontal matrix flow upon entering the materials of higher saturated hydraulic conductivity in the Pebble Band. The Pebble Band is underlain by low-conductivity deposits of pre-Illinoian till. Even though the upper oxidized portion of the glacial till is reported to have macropores, the Pebble Band prevented deeper infiltration of storm water by maintaining a strong component of horizontal hydraulic gradient. Chemical data indicate that the Pebble Band is a hydraulic-conductivity boundary that abruptly changes the unsaturated-flow mechanism from macropore flow to matrix flow.

Original Publication Date


DOI of published version