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Determining groundwater degradation from irrigation in desert-marginal Northern China

By Brighid E. O Dochartaigh, Alan M. MacDonald, William G. Darling, Andrew G. Hughes, Jin X. Li and Li A. Shi


Groundwater degradation from irrigated agriculture is of concern in semi-arid northern China. Data-scarcity often means the causes and extent of problems are not fully understood. An irrigated area in Inner Mongolia was studied, where abstraction from an unconfined Quaternary aquifer has increased threefold over 20 years to 20 million m3/year; groundwater levels are falling at up to 0.5 m/year; and groundwater is increasingly mineralised (TDS increase from 400 to 700–1,900 mg/L), with nitrate concentrations up to 137 mg/L N. Residence-time (chlorofluorocarbons), stable-isotope and hydrogeochemical indicators helped develop a conceptual model of groundwater system evolution, demonstrating a direct relationship between modern water proportion and the degree of groundwater mineralisation, indicating that irrigation-water recycling is reducing groundwater quality. The investigations suggest that before irrigation development, active recharge to the aquifer from wadis significantly exceeded groundwater inflow from nearby mountains, previously held to be the main groundwater input. Away from active wadis, groundwater is older with a probable pre-Holocene component. Proof-of-concept groundwater modelling supports geochemical evidence, indicating the importance of wadi recharge and irrigation return flows. Engineering works protecting the irrigated area from flooding have reduced good quality recharge; active recharge is now dominated by irrigation returns, which are degrading the aquifer. \u

Publisher: Springer
Year: 2010
DOI identifier: 10.1007/s10040-010-0644-7
OAI identifier:

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