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Factors Controlling As and U in Shallow Ground Water, Southern Carson Desert, Nevada

Citation: Welch, Alan H., and Lico, M.S., 1998, Factors controlling As and U in shallow ground water, southern Carson Desert, Nevada: Applied Geochemistry, v.13, no.4, p.521-539.

Unusually high As and U concentrations (>100 µg/L) are widespread in shallow ground water beneath the southern Carson Desert. The high concentrations, which locally exceed 1000 µg/L, are of concern from a human health standpoint because the shallow ground water is used for domestic supply. Possible effects on wildlife are also of concern because the ground water flows into shallow lakes and marshes within wildlife refuges.

Arsenic and U concentrations in ground water of the southern Carson Desert appear to be affected by evaporative concentration, redox reactions, and adsorption. The relation of these elements with Cl suggests that most of the high concentrations can be attributed to evaporative concentration of Carson River water, the primary source of recharge.

Some ground water contains higher As and U concentrations that cannot be explained by evaporative concentration alone. Oxidation-reduction reactions, involving metal oxides and sedimentary-organic matter, appear to contribute As, U, inorganic C, Fe and Mn to the ground water. Arsenic in Fe-oxide was confirmed by chemical extraction and is consistent with laboratory adsorption studies. Uranium in both sedimentary-organic C and Fe-oxide coatings has been confirmed by fission tracks and petrographic examination.

Arsenic concentrations in the ground water and chemical extracts of aquifer sediments are broadly consistent with adsorption as a control on some dissolved As concentrations. An apparent loss of As from some ground water as evaporative concentration proceeds is consistent with adsorption as a control on As. However, evidence for adsorption should be viewed with caution, because the adsorption model used values for the adsorbent that have not been shown to be valid for the aquifer sediments throughout the southern Carson Desert.

Hydrologic and geochemical conditions in the Carson Desert are similar to other areas with high As and U concentrations in ground water, including the Salton Sea basin and southern San Joaquin Valley of California. Hydrologic and geochemical conditions that produced some sandstone-type U-ore deposits, including those in the non-marine, closed-basin sediments of the Morrison Formation near Grants, New Mexico, suggest that the Carson Desert may be a modern analog for those systems.

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