The impact of freshwater and wastewater irrigation on the chemistry of shallow groundwater: A case study from the Israeli Coastal Aquifer

A. Kass, I. Gavrieli, Y. Yechieli, A. Vengosh, A. Starinsky

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111 Scopus citations


Differences in the impact of irrigation with freshwater versus wastewater on the underlying shallow groundwater quality were investigated in the Coastal Aquifer of Israel. Seven research boreholes were drilled to the top-most 3-5 m of the saturated zone (the water table region-WTR) in the agricultural fields. The unsaturated zone and the WTR below the irrigated fields consist mainly of clayey sands, while the main aquifer comprises mainly of calcareous sandstones and sands. We show that the salinity and composition of the groundwater at the WTR are highly variable over a distance of less than 1 km and are controlled by the irrigating water and the processes in the overlying unsaturated zone. Tritium data in this groundwater (4.6 tritium units (TU)) support that these water are modern recharge. The water at the WTR is more saline and has a different chemical composition relative to the overlying irrigation water. High SAR values (sodium adsorption ratio) in wastewater irrigation lead to absorption of Na + onto the clay and release of Ca 2+ into the recharging water, resulting in low Na/Cl (0.4 compared to 1.2 in the wastewater) and high Ca/Cl ratios. In contrast, in the freshwater-irrigated field the irrigation water pumped from the aquifer (Na/Cl=0.9; SAR=0.6) is modified into Na-rich groundwater (Na/Cl=2.0) due to reverse base-exchange reactions. The high NO 3 concentration (>100 mg/l) in the WTR below both fields is derived from the agricultural activities. In the freshwater field, the source of NO 3 is fertilizer leachates, whereas in the wastewater field, where less fertilizers are applied, nitrate is probably derived from nitrification of the NH 4 in the wastewater. Some of the original inorganic nitrogen in the wastewater is consumed by the agricultural plants, resulting in a lower inorganic-N/Cl ratio in the WTR as compared to that in the wastewater. This study demonstrates the important role of the composition of irrigation water, combined with lithology and land use, in determining the quality of the water that recharge the aquifer below agricultural fields.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)314-331
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - 10 Jan 2005


  • Base exchange
  • Coastal Aquifer
  • Groundwater contamination
  • Groundwater salinization
  • Irrigation
  • Unsaturated zone
  • Wastewater
  • Water table region


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