Lithologic and redox controls on hexavalent chromium in vadose zone sediments of California's Central Valley

Cynthia N. McClain, Scott Fendorf, Shane T. Johnson, Alana Menendez, Kate Maher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


In agricultural regions of California where ultramafic sediments containing naturally occurring Cr(III) are present, correlations between Cr(VI) and nitrate in groundwater have been attributed to oxidation of Cr(III) in vadose sediments and mobilization by areal recharge, including irrigation return. However, the distribution of Cr and nitrate through the vadose zone have yet to be evaluated together to investigate the controls on geogenic Cr(VI) occurrence and resulting Cr(VI) production rates and export fluxes to groundwater. To develop a framework for evaluating geogenic Cr(VI) contamination, we analyze vadose zone sediment cores from the southwestern Sacramento Valley of California at high spatial resolution. In the sandy, oxic, ultramafic, Cr-rich Holocene alluvial sediment, Cr(III) is oxidized to Cr(VI), resulting in increasing Cr(VI) concentrations with depth up to 79 μg/kg. Oxidation is likely associated with μ-meter scale co-located Mn(IV)-oxides. Within the fine-grained Pleistocene sediments beneath the historic high water table (5–18 m), Cr(VI) concentrations decrease with depth to <30 μg/kg due to subsequent reduction. Patterns in Cr(VI) concentration parallel nitrate due to the similar depth of production zones, oxidation-reduction potential and geochemical behavior. Field evidence in the shallow profile also supports Cr(VI) production by enhanced Cr(III) dissolution due to nitrification-induced acidification and subsequent oxidation by Mn-oxides. From Cr(VI) and nitrate concentration gradients with depth through the vadose zone (∼20 m), we calculate field-based net production and removal rates, quantify vadose zone storage (156–1168 kg Cr(VI)/km2; 1 × 105–2.6 × 105 kg N/km2), and estimate export fluxes to groundwater (40–1314 kg Cr(VI)/km2/yr; 5–487 kg N/km2/yr). The framework we present for evaluating vadose zone geogenic Cr(VI) contamination highlights the compounding effects that vadose zone lithology and hydrology can have on solute production, accumulation, development of redoxclines, and subsequent distribution of redox sensitive elements in alluvial sediment and groundwater.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)478-494
Number of pages17
JournalGeochimica et Cosmochimica Acta
StatePublished - Nov 15 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowship DGE-114747 to C.N. McClain, and EAR-1254156 to K. Maher), Stanford University’s McGee Grant and Stanford University’s School of Earth Summer Undergraduate Research Program. Use of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, is supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Science, Office of Basic Energy Sciences under Contract No. DE-AC02-76SF00515. Cores are archived at LacCore (National Lacustrine Core Facility), Department of Earth Sciences, University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. We thank Dr. Guangchao Li, Doug Turner, Dr. Samuel M. Webb, Dr. Juan Lezama Pacheco, Bob Devany, Mary Stallard, Bill McIlvride, and Rob Davis for assistance and fruitful conversations in the field and laboratory. Appendix A

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019

Copyright 2019 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • California
  • Chromium
  • Groundwater
  • Nitrate
  • Sediments
  • Vadose zone

Continental Scientific Drilling Facility tags

  • PUT


Dive into the research topics of 'Lithologic and redox controls on hexavalent chromium in vadose zone sediments of California's Central Valley'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this