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High Ground Water

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Michael Fox, PhD.



High Ground Water

Water has the formula H2O, which means that there are two hydrogen atoms attached to one oxygen atom. Hydrogen has an atomic weight of 1 and oxygen 16. Hence, a typical water molecule has a molecular weight of 18 (16+1+1).

However, due to additional neutrons in the nucleus, there are also a small number of hydrogen atoms with an atomic weight of 2, called deuterium, and an even smaller number with an atomic weight of 3, called tritium. Deuterium is naturally occurring but most of the tritium comes from A-Bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s. There are also a small number of oxygen atoms with atomic weights of 18. These are referred to as "isotopes" of hydrogen and oxygen.

Because there are isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen there are also isotopes of water with a molecular weight that, in principle, can range from 19 to 26. Because these water molecules are heavier than the typical water molecule, they evaporate more slowly. Therefore, if there is an open body of water, such as a pond, the pond water will typically have a higher concentration of the heavier water molecules than the incoming water that fills the pond. Various types of water sources will have characteristic ratios of isotopes, which in turn can help identify the origin of an unknown source of water.

.Most interestingly, since the tritium isotope came from the A-Bomb testing in the 1950s, the lack of tritium in a water sample means that it has been underground since before the 1950s. For example, some underground springs contain water with no tritium.

The science of water isotopes was applied to study a high ground water problem in a small community of about 200 homes that were built in the 1970s. At the lower elevations in this community, damp spots began appearing in about the year 2000. Prior to that, in 1996-1999, a new golf course with a new residential community was built just uphill from the 200-home community.

Water Seeping from the Ground plus White Precipitate

In about 2008, water-saturated soil was being noticed more and more and in places the ground appeared white as if covered by a thin layer of snow. However, it was not snow but salt left behind by the water coming to the surface and evaporating. In 2009, liquid water actually began seeping out of the ground at the lowest elevation of the 200-home community, as seen in the photo above.

At the request of the homeowners, the local government got involved and performed studies. Using isotope analysis, the local government concluded that the seep water was from natural springs, and they even put two new natural springs on the county map guide right where the water was seeping out. Due to the timing of the new golf course and the water problem, the homeowners suspected the irrigation water at the golf course had contributed to the problem. However, consultants hired by the local government told the homeowners that there was no tritium in the seep water; hence it had to be coming from a very old natural spring. The new golf course used reclaimed water for irrigation; hence that water would be expected to contain tritium. Therefore, it could not be the golf course irrigation water. At least, that is what the homeowners were told.

Chemaxx and Dr. Fox got involved on a probono basis and collected water samples for isotope analyses. Dr. Fox first asked the local government for the source of the information that there was no tritium in the seep water, as there was no mention of tritium in the government's written reports. The local government simply refused to answer the question. The question was asked several times, but they refused to answer.

Dr. Fox's samples included water from a borehole in the neighborhood. That borehole water contained tritium, contrary to what the government had told the homeowners. Not only did the borehole water contain tritium, but also the level of tritium was identical to the water in a pond at the new nearby golf course.

Golf Course Pond Used for Irrigation

To put it as nicely as possible, the government's information about tritium was simply incorrect. Whether this was done intentionally or not is not known. However, the government's refusal to answer the question about the source of their no-tritium information was undoubtedly "intentional." They had numerous opportunities to clear up that question and flatly refused.

With respect to the other water isotopes, the golf course did in fact use reclaimed water for irrigation, but they first put the reclaimed water into a pond. The irrigation water was then taken from the pond. When the government did their isotope studies, they took water from the incoming reclaimed water pipe, not from the pond.

Dr. Fox took water samples from the pond, and the level of isotopes in the pond water were a good match to the neighborhood's seep water. The difference between the two sampling methods is the role of evaporation. While the water is in the pond, evaporation concentrates the level of isotopes compared to the incoming reclaimed water. The isotope levels would not be expected to be the same.

It was also learned that what was believed to be a natural spring at the golf course was actually a leak in a potable water pipe. An enormous amount of water leaked for a period of years and created a good-sized natural pond and/or swamp. All of the golf course water, both from the irrigation pond and the other pond/swamp, drained directly into the neighborhood down below as seen in the following map of drainage washes.

X Marks the Affected Neighborhood

The golf course is in and around the area of the irrigation pond

The neighborhood filed a lawsuit against the local government as the local government played a key role in approving the building plans and permits for the new golf course.

Water isotopes can be a very powerful tool in water studies.

Dr. Fox is a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry with considerable experience investigating water related issues ranging from industrial water treatment to the water chemistry of nuclear reactors. Dr. Fox has also investigated water contamination in drinking water as well as the role of certain types of plumbing involved in water contamination. You may contact Dr. Fox at or 800-MIKE-FOX (645-3369).