Impacts of urbanization on groundwater quality and recharge in a semi-arid alluvial basin

Mark A. Carlson, Kathleen A. Lohse, Jennifer C. McIntosh, Jean E.T. McLain

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

69 Scopus citations


The management of groundwater resources is paramount in semi-arid regions experiencing urban development. In the southwestern United States, enhancing recharge of urban storm runoff has been identified as a strategy for augmenting groundwater resources. An understanding of how urbanization may impact the timing of groundwater recharge and its quality is a prerequisite for mitigating water scarcity and identifying vulnerability to contamination. We sampled groundwater wells along the Rillito Creek in southern Arizona that had been previously analyzed for tritium in the late 1980s to early 1990s and analyzed samples for tritium (3H) and helium-3 (3H/3He) to evaluate changes in 3H and age date groundwaters. Groundwater samples were also analyzed for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and basic water quality metrics. Substantial changes in 3H values from waters sampled in the early 1990s compared to 2009 were identified after accounting for radioactive decay and indicate areas of rapid recharge. 3H-3He groundwater ages ranged from 22years before 2009 to modern recharge. CFC-11, -12 and -113 concentrations were anomalously high across the basin, and non-point source pollution in runoff and/or leaky infrastructure was identified as the most plausible source of this contamination. CFCs were strongly and positively correlated to nitrate (r2=0.77) and a mobile trace metal, nickel (r2=0.71), suggesting that solutes were derived from a similar source. Findings from this study suggest new waters from urban non-point sources are contributing to groundwater recharge and adversely affecting water quality. Reducing delivery of contaminants to areas of focused recharge will be critical to protect future groundwater resources.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)196-211
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Oct 28 2011


  • CFCs
  • Groundwater
  • Isotopes
  • Recharge
  • Tritium/helium
  • Urban

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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