Articles | Volume 20, issue 5
Research article
17 May 2016
Research article |  | 17 May 2016

Identification of anthropogenic and natural inputs of sulfate into a karstic coastal groundwater system in northeast China: evidence from major ions, δ13CDIC and δ34SSO4

Dongmei Han, Xianfang Song, and Matthew J. Currell

Abstract. The hydrogeochemical processes controlling groundwater evolution in the Daweijia area of Dalian, northeast China, were characterised using hydrochemistry and isotopes of carbon and sulfur (δ13CDIC and δ34SSO4). The aim was to distinguish anthropogenic impacts as distinct from natural processes, with a particular focus on sulfate, which is found at elevated levels (range: 54.4 to 368.8 mg L−1; mean: 174.4 mg L−1) in fresh and brackish groundwater. The current investigation reveals minor seawater intrusion impact (not exceeding 5 % of the overall solute load), in contrast with extensive impacts observed in 1982 during the height of intensive abstraction. This indicates that measures to restrict groundwater abstraction have been effective. However, hydrochemical facies analysis shows that the groundwater remains in a state of ongoing hydrochemical evolution (towards Ca–Cl type water) and quality degradation (increasing nitrate and sulfate concentrations). The wide range of NO3 concentrations (74.7–579 mg L−1) in the Quaternary aquifer indicates considerable input of fertilisers and/or leakage from septic systems. Both δ13C (−14.5 to −5.9 ‰) and δ34SSO4 (+5.4 to +13.1 ‰) values in groundwater show increasing trends along groundwater flow paths. While carbonate minerals may contribute to increasing δ13CDIC and δ34SSO4 values in deep karstic groundwater, high loads of agricultural fertilisers reaching the aquifer via irrigation return flow are likely the main source of the dissolved sulfate in Quaternary groundwater, as shown by distinctive isotopic ratios and a lack of evidence for other sources in the major ion chemistry. According to isotope mass balance calculations, the fertiliser contribution to overall sulfate has reached an average of 62.1 % in the Quaternary aquifer, which has a strong hydraulic connection to the underlying carbonate aquifer. The results point to an alarming level of impact from the local intensive agriculture on the groundwater system, a widespread problem throughout China.

Short summary
We report new data for carbon and sulfur isotopes of the groundwater flow system in a coastal carbonate aquifer of northeast China. It shows how these can be used to determine the major processes controlling sulfate cycling and transport. Hopefully the study will be of broad international interest, and is expected to improve the understanding of techniques to determine impacts on groundwater quality and flow, leading to improved groundwater protection and monitoring strategies.