Virginia Aquifer Susceptibility Study

Dating of Ground Water for Source Water Assessment Screening


The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), is conducting a study to determine the intrinsic natural susceptibility of the regional aquifers in Virginia that serve as public water supplies.  The information will be used to screen public ground-water supplies and identify those that require detailed source-water assessments.  Approximately 150 sites will be sampled during this 4-year study.  This study is part of the State Source Water Assessment program, which is coordinated by the VDH, Office of Water Programs.

The fundamental premise of the USGS study is to use age determinations as a guide for the classification of areas in terms of the susceptibility of ground water to near-surface contamination.  Various environmental isotopes and tracers will be used to determine the age of ground water (table 1).  Carbon-14 will be used to date ground water that is older than 1,000 years.  Chlorofluorocarbons (Freon) and tritium (a product of above ground nuclear weapons testing) techniques will be used to date ground water that is less than 50 years old. Analysis of dissolved gas samples will estimate the temperature of ground water at the time of recharge, which is used in the age-determination techniques.


Table 1.  List of environmental tracers and isotopes used for age determinations

Environmental isotope/tracer



(CFC-11, CFC-12, and CFC-113)

0 to 50

USGS, National Research Program
Reston Chlorofluorocarbon Lab, VA


0 to 50

USGS, National Research Program
Menlo Park, CA


0 to 30

Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Columbia University, NY


1,000 to

Univ. of Waterloo, Canada

Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory
Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences, Ltd., New Zealand

Ground-water samples will also be analyzed for major dissolved constituents, nitrate, radon-222, and dissolved organic carbon (table 2) to aid in the interpretation of age determinations and in the assessment of natural susceptibility.  Field properties (pH, temperature, specific conductance, and dissolved oxygen) will be monitored during sample collection.  Alkalinity will be determined at the time of sample collection.  The estimated time to collect the sample is between 2 and 3 hours.


Table 2.  List of dissolved constituents




Major Ions

Ca, Mg, Na, K,
Cl, SO4, SiO2,

USGS, National Research Program, Reston, VA


(as N)

USGS, National Water Quality Lab, Denver, CO

Organic Carbon


USGS, National Water Quality Lab, Denver, CO



USGS, National Water Quality Lab, Denver, CO


Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s)

Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC's) are stable synthetic organic compounds that were first manufactured in the 1930's and used as refrigerants, aerosol propellants, cleaning agents, solvents, and blowing agents in the production of foam rubber and plastics (Busenberg and Plummer, 1992). CFC's are eventually released to the atmosphere and hydrosphere and depletion of the Earth's ozone layer has been

attributed to the rapid atmospheric accumulation of these compounds (Molina and Rowland, 1974). The method developed by Busenberg and Plummer (1992) uses CFC's as dating tools--trichlorofluoromethane (CCl3F, CFC-11, Freon 11), dichlorodifluoromethane (CCl2F2, CFC-12, Freon 12), and trichlorotrifluoroethane (C2Cl3F3, CFC-113). CFC-11 and CFC-12 make up 77 percent of total global production of CFC's (Derra, 1990).  Atmospheric partial pressures of CFC's are determined by Henry's law from the recharge temperature estimated from dissolved gases in the sample (N2/Ar ratio) and measured concentrations of CFC's in the ground-water samples. These calculated partial pressures are compared with the atmospheric mixing ratios of CFC's (fig. 1) to determine the CFC-modeled recharge date, which equates to the time that the water was isolated from air in the unsaturated zone.


Tritium and Tritium/Helium-3

Tritium (3H) is the radioactive isotope of hydrogen with a half-life of 12.43 years (IAEA, 1981) and is an excellent indicator of ground water recharged since 1952 (Clark and Fritz, 1997).  Production of 3H in the atmosphere naturally occurs by cosmic ray spallation, but the principal source was the atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons.  The standard unit of measure for 3H is a tritium unit (TU) for which one TU is equivalent to one 3H atom per 1018 atoms of hydrogen or in terms of radioactivity 3.2 picocuries per liter (Clark and Fritz, 1997).  Tritium content in precipitation closely mimics world events during the Cold War years with a maximum concentration occurring in 1963, commonly referred to as the "bomb peak" (fig. 1).  Atmospheric concentrations have gradually declined since 1963 and present-day ground water typically contains <1 to 10 TU, seldom exceeding 50 TU (Clark and Fritz, 1997).

The tritium/helium-3 (3H/3He) method is based on the radioactive decay of 3H to 3He.  Both tritium and helium are relatively inert gases.  Multiple sources of 3He are present in the environment such as the Earth's mantle and atmosphere, fluid inclusions within rocks, and excess air entrained in ground water during recharge (Schlosser, 1992). This method separates 3He derived from 3H (tritogenic 3He) from 3He derived from natural sources. Apparent age estimates from the 3H/3He method can be extremely accurate (within months) for ground water containing high 3H concentrations (waters recharged since 1963). Unlike the chlorofluorocarbon dating method, 3H/3He is a valid technique for sites contaminated with organic compounds.

Carbon-14 (14C)

Carbon-14 (14C) is commonly referred to as radiocarbon and is continually produced in the atmosphere through cosmic ray bombardment of nitrogen nuclei (Bradley, 1985). 14C content in the atmosphere increased almost twofold during the mid-1960's as a result of the atmospheric testing of thermonuclear weapons (Clark and Fritz, 1997).  14C activities are expressed as a percent of modern carbon (pmC).  With a half-life of 5,730 years, 14C is useful for dating ground water that is between 1,000 and 30,000 years old (Coplen, 1993).  Diffusion and geochemical reactions within an aquifer, however, can alter the 14C activity.  A geochemical reaction path model (Plummer and others, 1983; 1991; 1994) is used to account for dilution and addition of carbon along ground-water flowpaths, which improves the accuracy of age determinations.


Busenberg, Eurybiades, and Plummer, L.N., 1992, Use of chlorofluorocarbons (CCl3F and CCl2F2) as hydrologic tracers and age-dating tools: The alluvium and terrace system of central Oklahoma: Water Resources Research, v.28, no. 9, p. 2257-2283.

Derra, S., 1990, CFCs--No easy solutions: Research and Development, v. 32, p. 54-66.

Molina, M., and Rowland, F.S., 1974, Stratospheric sink for chlorofluoromethanes: Chlorine atom catalyzed destruction of ozone: Nature, no. 249, p. 810-812.

Plummer, L.N., and Busenberg, Eurybiades, 1999, Chlorofluorocarbons, in Cook, P.G., and Herczeg, Andrew, eds., Environmental tracers in subsurface hydrology: Klumer Academic Press (in press).

Bradley, R.S., 1985, Quaternary paleoclimatology: Boston, Unwin Hyman, 472 p.

Clark, I.D., and Fritz, Peter, 1997, Environmental isotopes in hydrogeology: New York, Lewis Publishers, 328 p.

Coplen, T.B., 1993, Uses of environmental isotopes, in W.M. Alley, ed., Regional ground-water quality: New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, p. 227-254.

Plummer, L.N., Parkhurst, D.L., and Thirstiness, D.C., 1983, Development of reaction models for ground-water systems: Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta, v. 47, p. 665-686.

Plummer, L.N., Prestemon, E.C., and Parkhurst, D.L., 1991, An interactive code (NETPATH) for modeling net geochemical reactions along a flow path: 91-4078, 227 p.

______1994, An interactive code (NETPATH) for modeling net geochemical reactions along a flow path, version 2.0: 94-4169, 130 p.

Clark, I.D., and Fritz, Peter, 1997, Environmental isotopes in hydrogeology: New York, Lewis Publishers, 328 p.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), 1981, Statistical treatment of environmental isotope data in precipitation: Vienna, IAEA, Technical Report Series No. 206.

Michel, R.M., 1989, Tritium deposition in the Continental United States, 1953-1983: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 89-4072, 46p.

Schlosser, Peter, 1992, Tritium/3He dating of waters in natural systems, in Isotopes of noble gases as tracers in environmental studies: Vienna, IAEA, p. 123-145.

For more information contact:

David L. Nelms                       (804) 261-2630
George E. Harlow, Jr.             (804) 261-2631

Web Sites:

Virginia District

VAS Project

(Not available at this time)

USGS Reston CFC Laboratory