Effects of Geologic Setting on Contaminant Transport in Deltaic Aquifers

Zhongyuan Xu, Jayaram Hariharan, Paola Passalacqua, Elisabeth Steel, Austin Chadwick, Chris Paola, Anner Paldor, Holly A. Michael

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Coastal deltaic aquifers are vulnerable to degradation from seawater intrusion, geogenic and anthropogenic contamination, and groundwater abstraction. The distribution and transport of contaminants are highly dependent on the subsurface sedimentary architecture, such as the presence of channelized features that preferentially conduct flow. Surface deposition changes in response to sea-level rise (SLR) and sediment supply, but it remains unclear how these surface changes affect the distribution and transport of groundwater solutes in aquifers. Here, we explore the influence of SLR and sediment supply on aquifer heterogeneity and resulting effects on contaminant transport. We use realizations of subsurface heterogeneity generated by a process-based numerical model, DeltaRCM, which simulates the evolution of a deltaic aquifer with different input sand fractions and rates of SLR. We simulate groundwater flow and solute transport through these deposits in three contamination scenarios: (a) vertical transport from widespread contamination at the land surface, (b) vertical transport from river water infiltration, and (c) lateral seawater intrusion. The simulations show that the vulnerability of deltaic aquifers to seawater intrusion correlates to sand fraction, while vertical transport of contaminants, such as widespread shallow contamination and river water infiltration, is influenced by channel stacking patterns. This analysis provides new insights into the connection between the depositional system properties and vulnerability to different modes of groundwater contamination. It also illustrates how vulnerability may vary locally within a delta due to depositional differences. Results suggest that groundwater management strategies may be improved by considering surface features, location within the delta, and the external forcings during aquifer deposition.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2022WR031943
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the three reviewers and the Associate Editor, whose comments improved the paper. Support for this work was from the National Science Foundation via EAR‐1719670 and EAR‐1719638.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022. American Geophysical Union. All Rights Reserved.


  • aquifer heterogeneity
  • deltaic aquifers
  • groundwater contamination
  • groundwater flow and solute transport
  • groundwater modeling
  • stratigraphic modeling


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