Articles | Volume 18, issue 8
Research article
20 Aug 2014
Research article |  | 20 Aug 2014

A comparison of particle-tracking and solute transport methods for simulation of tritium concentrations and groundwater transit times in river water

M. A. Gusyev, D. Abrams, M. W. Toews, U. Morgenstern, and M. K. Stewart

Abstract. The purpose of this study is to simulate tritium concentrations and groundwater transit times in river water with particle-tracking (MODPATH) and compare them to solute transport (MT3DMS) simulations. Tritium measurements in river water are valuable for the calibration of particle-tracking and solute transport models as well as for understanding of watershed storage dynamics. In a previous study, we simulated tritium concentrations in river water of the western Lake Taupo catchment (WLTC) using a MODFLOW-MT3DMS model (Gusyev et al., 2013). The model was calibrated to measured tritium in river water at baseflows of the Waihaha, Whanganui, Whareroa, Kuratau, and Omori river catchments of the WLTC. Following from that work we now utilized the same MODFLOW model for the WLTC to calculate the pathways of groundwater particles (and their corresponding tritium concentrations) using steady-state particle tracking MODPATH model. In order to simulate baseflow tritium concentrations with MODPATH, transit time distributions (TTDs) are necessary to understand the lag time between the entry and discharge points of a tracer and are generated for the river networks of the five WLTC outflows. TTDs are used in the convolution integral with an input tritium concentration time series obtained from the precipitation measurements. The resulting MODPATH tritium concentrations yield a very good match to measured tritium concentrations and are similar to the MT3DMS-simulated tritium concentrations, with the greatest variation occurring around the bomb peak. MODPATH and MT3DMS also yield similar mean transit times (MTTs) of groundwater contribution to river baseflows, but the actual shape of the TTDs is strikingly different. While both distributions provide valuable information, the methodologies used to derive the TTDs are fundamentally different and hence must be interpreted differently. With the current MT3DMS model settings, only the methodology used with MODPATH provides the true TTD for use with the convolution integral.