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Adorni-Braccesi A., Acutis M., Merlo S. and G.M. Zuppi (2001). Physical, Chemical and isotopic techniques to evaluate recharge under temperate climates. Rev. Sci. Eau 14/3 (2001) 243-263. [article in French]

Original title: Application des techniques physiques, géochimiques et isotopiques pour l'évaluation de l'infiltration sous climat tempéré.

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In groundwater management, it is necessary to define water movement, evaluate infiltration and evapotranspiration rates, and quantify the physico-chemical evolution of transported solutes throughout the unsaturated zone (UZ). Traditionally, in temperate regions, recharge rate is evaluated by the comparison between physical methods (based on direct measurements of hydrological parameters with lysimeters, tensiometers and neutron gauges) and geochemical approaches (conservative ions, stable isotope profiles and artificial tracers).

In the Po Plain (Northern Italy) intensive agricultural irrigation and overexploitation of groundwater profoundly affect the quality and availability of shallow groundwater resources. The region has been intensively cultivated with corn and rice during the last 5 centuries. Irrigation canals have been constructed in order to distribute water from alpine rivers to areas more favourable to agriculture. In the past, only the water balance method has been applied to obtain recharge rates in these situations.

An experimental field site has been operational since 1987 in the ENEA-EUREX Nuclear Centre of Saluggia. The experimental plot represents an unsaturated zone in fluvio-glacial deposits (Holocene) of the Dora Baltea River, formed by gravel and sand, interlayered with silt levels. The water table is usually at a depth of 200 cm but it varies as a function of the river level. The objectives of the present study were to describe water movement throughout the UZ and to evaluate infiltration and evapotranspiration rates using different physico-chemical methodologies. The Saluggia plot was equipped with six tensiometers, a neutron gauge hole and 6 porous cups, up to a depth of 160 cm.

During 10 years of monitoring, the most favourable period for understanding infiltration processes and water movement through the UZ is September 1994 - August 1995. This period is characterised by an exceptional rain event (300 mm in 48 hours), followed by a river flood. Water samples collected with porous cups at various depths have been analysed for chemistry and stable isotope composition, together with rainfall and Dora Baltea River water.

In October 1994 (beginning of the rainy period) and May 1995 (beginning of the dry period) soil samples were collected at different depths and water was extracted under vacuum conditions. Stable isotope analyses were performed on extracted waters. Soil samples were also analysed for granulometry, chemical and mineralogical composition.

Reducing soil to an unique monolayer aquifer, the water balance method suggests that only 19% of the total precipitation infiltrates, whereas a simulation model taking into account soil hydrodynamic characteristics estimates an infiltration rate of 29% of the rainfall. The position of the Zero Flux Plane (ZFP) fluctuates seasonally between the surface and the maximum studied depth, as a consequence of precipitation events and evaporation fluxes. In some periods, the ZFP is level with the water table and direct discharge may occur.

Measurements of the stable isotopic composition (2H and 18O) of soil water allows a quantitative estimate of direct groundwater discharge. On a 2H versus 18O plot, pore waters from the UZ have an isotopic composition that differs from that of the majority of groundwater samples, plotting below the local rain water line and indicating some degree of evaporation during the recharge process. The isotopic enrichment is particularly significant at the evaporation front, suggesting that pore water in soil reflects a different recharge regime from those of the regional ground waters. Water isotope and solute composition were substantially modified from their original composition during the infiltration process within the soil, via mechanisms such as anion exchange with soil particles, salt precipitation/dissolution or isotopic fractionation.

Arial recharge was also evaluated using the depth distribution of a conservative solute. Assuming that chloride is derived from precipitation alone, Cl- content in soil and in rain water suggests that 12% of total rainfall infiltrates. Therefore, the recharge rate is estimated to be less than 100 mm/a. These data are in agreement with other results obtained by the chloride concentration profile method, in areas of the Po Valley, but are considerably different from those evaluated by the traditional physical methods.


Unsaturated zone, temperate climate, recharge, water balance, conservative ions, isotopic composition, microporosity, macroporosity.

Corresponding author

G.M. Zuppi, Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Università di Torino, Via Valperga Caluso 35, 10125 Torino, ITALIE
Addresse actuelle: R.M.C. S.r.l., Corso Italia 69, 56125 Pisa, ITALIE

Email : zuppi@tin.it
Telephone : +39-(0)41-2578666 / Fax : +39-(0)41-2578584

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Update: 2006-12-20
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