Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy


Civil and Environmental Engineering

Collaborative Specialization

Environment and Sustainability


Robinson, Clare

2nd Supervisor

Denis O'Carroll


University of New South Wales



It is well recognized that groundwater-surface water interactions play an important role in controlling the flux of groundwater-derived inorganic chemicals to surface waters. While these interactions have been well-studied in marine, and river and stream settings, the influence of these interactions on chemical fluxes to large lakes is poorly understood. Nearshore aquifers adjacent to inland coastal waters, such as the Great Lakes, are characterized by dynamic flow patterns and the mixing of groundwater and lake water, which have distinct chemical compositions. This sets up an important reaction zone in the nearshore aquifer that may modify the fate of groundwater-derived chemicals discharging to the lake. The overall thesis objective was to evaluate the interacting hydrologic and geochemical processes near the groundwater-lake interface and their impact on the accumulation, transformation and mobility of inorganic pollutants (arsenic and nutrients).

Field investigations combined with numerical modelling illustrate that transient forcing, in particular varying wave conditions and lake water levels, may influence the sequestration and mobility of inorganic chemicals in the reaction zone near the groundwater-lake interface. Field data further indicate that nearshore aquifers on the Great Lakes are naturally enriched with arsenic. Arsenic enrichment may be due to continual adsorption of arsenic onto metal (mostly iron) oxides that precipitate below the groundwater-lake interface as lake water with trace arsenic concentrations recirculates across the interface. While changes in lake water levels, and redox and pH conditions may trigger the release of sequestered arsenic to nearshore waters it depends on the geochemical conditions in the aquifer. Finally, geochemical processes in the reaction zone near the groundwater-lake interface are shown to affect nutrient fate close to the interface and should be considered in estimating nutrient fluxes to large lakes. Temporal variability in the geochemistry in the reaction zone due to seasonal changes in dissolved organic carbon availability was shown to cause variable nitrogen flux to nearshore waters. While this thesis focuses on arsenic and nutrients, the findings are relevant for understanding the fate and transport of a wide range of reactive groundwater pollutants and their flux to large lakes. The thesis findings are needed to (i) better quantify the role of groundwater as a pathway for delivering pollutants to large lakes, (ii) improve future predictions of chemical cycling in nearshore lake environments, and (ii) inform lake water quality management programs.

Summary for Lay Audience

Human activities including agriculture, industry, and urbanization can lead to the contamination of groundwater. Contaminants in the groundwater can be delivered to surface waters including large lakes such as the Laurentian Great Lakes by groundwater discharge. Before discharging into the lake, groundwater mixes with lake water that is recirculating back-and-forth across sediment-water interface (e.g. beach surface). The discharging groundwater and lake water have different chemical compositions and therefore an important reaction zone is established where these waters mix. This reaction zone may change the amount and timing of contaminant discharge to the lakes. The objective of this thesis was to investigate the role of this reaction zone on the accumulation and transformation of inorganic pollutants (arsenic and nutrients), and their ultimate discharge to lakes. The study conducted intensive field investigations at beaches along Great Lakes and found that in some cases groundwater contains high nutrients and arsenic concentrations. The main findings of the study are i) sediments formed at the sediment water interface may accumulate reactive species (phosphors and arsenic) and act as a potential legacy source of pollutants, ii) traditional approach of measuring contaminant fluxes ignoring the processes in the reaction zone at the sediment water interface may overestimate pollutant fluxes discharging to lakes, iii) episodic release of pollutants in response to changes in environmental conditions (e.g. lake water level changes, high waves) may occur resulting in the amount of pollutants discharging to lakes over short period of time. Further, we found that nutrients and arsenic can be released or stored on beach sediments near the shoreline depending on specific environmental conditions. This work provides new insights on evaluating the contribution of groundwater to delivering pollutants to lake.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Available for download on Friday, January 01, 2021