WRIR 95-4281

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Sumner, D.M., and Bradner, L.A., 1996, Hydraulic Characteristics and Nutrient Transport and Transformation Beneath a Rapid Infiltration Basin, Reedy Creek Improvement District, Orange County, Florida: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 95-4281, 51 p.


The Reedy Creek Improvement District disposes of about 7.5 million gallons per day (1992) of reclaimed water through 85 1-acre rapid infiltration basins within a 1,000-acre area of sandy soils in Orange County, Florida. The U.S. Geological Survey conducted field experiments in 1992 at an individual basin to examine and better understand the hydraulic characteristics and nutrient transport and transformation of reclaimed water beneath a rapid infiltration basin. At the time, concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorus in reclaimed water were about 3 and 0.25 milligrams per liter, respectively.

A two-dimensional, radial, unsaturated/saturated numerical flow model was applied to describe the flow system beneath a rapid infiltration basin under current and hypothetical basin loading scenarios and to estimate the hydraulic properties of the soil and sediment beneath a basin. The thicknesses of the unsaturated and saturated parts of the surficial aquifer system at the basin investigated were about 37 and 52 feet, respectively. The model successfully replicated the field-monitored infiltration rate (about 5.5 feet per day during the daily flooding periods of about 17 hours) and ground-water mounding response during basin operation. Horizontal and vertical hydraulic conductivity of the saturated part of the surficial aquifer system were estimated to be 150 and 45 feet per day, respectively. The field-saturated vertical hydraulic conductivity of the shallow soil, estimated to be about 5.1 feet per day, was considered to have been less than the full-saturation value because of the effects of air entrapment. Specific yield of the surficial aquifer was estimated to be 0.41.

The upper 20 feet of the basin subsurface profile probably served as a system control on infiltration because of the relatively low field-saturated, vertical hydraulic conductivity of the sediments within this layer. The flow model indicates that, in the vicinity of the basin, flow in the deeper, saturated zone was relatively slow compared to the more vigorous flow in the shallow saturated zone. The large radial component of flow below the water table in the vicinity of the basin implies that reclaimed water moves preferentially in the shallow part of the saturated zone upon reaching the water table. Therefore, there may be some vertical stratification in the saturated zone, with recently infiltrated water overlying ambient water. The infiltration capacity at the basin would be unaffected by a small (less than 10 feet) increase in background water-table altitude, because the water table would remain below the system control on infiltration. However, water-table rises of 15 and 20 feet were estimated to reduce the infiltration capacity of the basin by 8 and 25 percent, respectively. Model simulations indicate that increasing ponded depth within the basin from 4 to 12 inches and from 4 to 24 inches would increase basin infiltration capacity by less than 6 and 11 percent, respectively. A loading strategy at the basin that relies on long, uninterrupted flooding was shown to offer the possibility of inducing a more anaerobic environment conducive to denitrification while maintaining reclaimed-water disposal capacity.

Field measurements indicated that transient, elevated concentrations or "spikes" of nitrate (as high as 33 milligrams per liter as nitrogen) occurred at the leading edge of the infiltrating water and in the shallow saturated zone following a prolonged basin rest period. This phenomenon probably is the result of mineralization and nitrification of organic nitrogen retained within the subsurface during earlier basin loading events. The organic nitrogen was retained in the shallow soil (due to adsorption/straining) and the shallow saturated zone (due to deposition under slacking pore-water velocity). The magnitude of the nitrate spikes appears to be influenced by the scheduling of basin loading, with short flooding and resting periods being most favorable to minimization of nitrate spikes. Removal of nitrogen by denitrification from the percolating reclaimed water is minimal in the vicinity of the basin, probably because of the lack of reducing conditions and a relative paucity of organic carbon substrates. It is speculated that longer flooding periods could induce reducing conditions that would be favorable for nitrogen removal from the system, but probably would lead to more pronounced nitrate spiking.

Phosphorus concentrations were decreased by about 90 percent from concentrations in reclaimed water after moving through the upper 15 feet of the soil profile. This most likely was a result of adsorption onto abundant iron and aluminum hydrous oxyhydroxide coatings on sand grains. However, some phosphorus (coarse fraction, organic) passes through the shallow soil and accumulates below the water table under slacking pore-water velocity. This phosphorus is immobilized by adsorption, fixation, or precipitation reactions during basin rest periods.

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