Groundwater occurrence and risk of pollution in a mountain watershed of Nicaragua

University dissertation from Engineering Geology, Lund University

Abstract: Hydrogeological and geophysical methods were applied in the Río Artiguas watershed, a mountain basin located in central Nicaragua. This area is under environmental stress from anthropogenic activities like gold mining using mercury and waste disposal into the streams. The aim of this work was to characterise the hydrogeological conditions in the basin with emphasis on understanding the possible connections between streams and groundwater. It was also important to evaluate the vulnerability and risk of groundwater pollution. Hydrogeological mapping, resistivity imaging, hydrological measurements and hydrochemical surveys were combined to meet the aims of the work. The hydrogeological characterisation permitted identification of a) recharge areas, b) geological units that contribute to the formation of the groundwater system and c) a mechanism of discharge through springs and streams. The geophysical surveys allowed mapping the extension of weathering and tectonic features with hydrogeological significance, e.g. faults, dykes and fractures. A total of 99 perennial springs were documented and classified according to their mechanism of formation. Isotopic data indicate that the recharge occurs very close to the sites where the springs are formed. This is also supported by the relatively low ion concentrations found in the water of the springs. The weathering layers together with fractures and dykes form shallow aquifers that commonly discharge in a spring or along the streams. The high precipitation regime is an immediate source of water to the system, and in conjunction with the geology and steep topography it generates a constant and rapid circulation of water from recharge areas to discharge zones. The natural implication of this hydrogeological framework is that the formation of large or regional flows is not evident at the current state of knowledge. The same factors that influence groundwater occurrence are to some extent responsible for the degree of groundwater vulnerability to pollution. The vulnerable areas are situated along the steep valleys of the basin, where the interactions between subsurface and surface water can facilitate the spreading of pollutants. Since the pollution sources are located near the streams the risk of groundwater pollution is concentrated there. The pollutants disposed into the streams are rapidly removed by the river flow, which has a high contribution from precipitation. The pollutants are then transported far away from the sources. The urgent need to end the pollution of Río Artiguas is obvious. The tools to prevent further deterioration are not only to be found in the hydro geosciences and mining technology sphere, but they are also located in the socio?political arena. In this respect, the research presented in this thesis will gain importance as it reaches and informs local decision makers about the vulnerability and risks of pollution that the current anthropogenic activities represent for the groundwater resources.

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