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Saltwater intrusion is the movement of saline water into freshwater aquifers, which can lead to contamination of drinking water sources and other consequences. Saltwater intrusion occurs naturally to some degree in most coastal aquifers, owing to the hydraulic connection between groundwater and seawater. Because saline water has a higher mineral content than freshwater, it is denser and has a higher water pressure. As a result, saltwater can push inland beneath the freshwater. Certain human activities, especially groundwater pumping from coastal freshwater wells, have increased saltwater intrusion in many coastal areas. Water extraction drops the level of fresh groundwater, reducing its water pressure and allowing saltwater to flow further inland. Other contributors to saltwater intrusion include navigation channels or agricultural and drainage channels, which provide conduits for saltwater to move inland, and it can also make sea level rise. Saltwater intrusion can also be worsened by extreme events like hurricane storm surges.
At the coastal margin, fresh groundwater flowing from inland areas meets with saline groundwater from the ocean. The fresh groundwater flows from inland areas towards the coast where elevation and groundwater levels are lower. Because saltwater has a higher content of dissolved salts and minerals, it is denser than freshwater, causing it to have higher hydraulic head than freshwater. Hydraulic head refers to the liquid pressure exerted by a water column: a water column with higher hydraulic head will move into a water column with lower hydraulic head, if the columns are connected.
The higher pressure and density of saltwater causes it to move into coastal aquifers in a wedge shape under the freshwater. The saltwater and freshwater meet in a transition zone where mixing occurs through dispersion and diffusion. Ordinarily the inland extent of the saltwater wedge is limited because fresh groundwater levels, or the height of the freshwater column, increases as land elevation gets higher.
Groundwater extraction is the primary cause of saltwater intrusion. Groundwater is the main source of drinking water in many coastal areas of the United States, and extraction has increased over time. Under baseline conditions, the inland extent of saltwater is limited by higher pressure exerted by the freshwater column, owing to its higher elevation. Groundwater extraction can lower the level of the freshwater table, reducing the pressure exerted by the freshwater column and allowing the denser saltwater to move inland laterally. In Cape May, New Jersey, since the 1940s water withdrawals have lowered groundwater levels by up to 30 meters, reducing the water table to below sea level and causing widespread intrusion and contamination of water supply wells.
Groundwater extraction can also lead to well contamination by causing upwelling, or upcoming, of saltwater from the depths of the aquifer. Under baseline conditions, a saltwater wedge extends inland, underneath the freshwater because of its higher density. Water supply wells located over or near the saltwater wedge can draw the saltwater upward, creating a saltwater cone that might reach and contaminate the well. Some aquifers are predisposed towards this type of intrusion, such as the Lower Floridan aquifer: though a relatively impermeable rock or clay layer separates fresh groundwater from saltwater, isolated cracks breach the confining layer, promoting upward movement of saltwater. Pumping of groundwater strengthens this effect by lowering the water table, reducing the downward push of freshwater.
The construction of canals and drainage networks can lead to saltwater intrusion. Canals provide conduits for saltwater to be carried inland, as does the deepening of existing channels for navigation purposes. In Sabine Lake Estuary in the Gulf of Mexico, large-scale waterways have allowed saltwater to move into the lake, and upstream into the rivers feeding the lake. Additionally, channel dredging in the surrounding wetlands to facilitate oil and gas drilling has caused land subsidence, further promoting inland saltwater movement.
Drainage networks constructed to drain flat coastal areas can lead to intrusion by lowering the freshwater table, reducing the water pressure exerted by the freshwater column. Saltwater intrusion in southeast Florida has occurred largely as a result of drainage canals built between 1903 into the 1980s to drain the Everglades for agricultural and urban development. The main cause of intrusion was the lowering of the water table, though the canals also conveyed seawater inland until the construction of water control gates.
Many coastal communities around the United States are experiencing saltwater contamination of water supply wells, and this problem has been seen for decades. The consequences of saltwater intrusion for supply wells vary widely, depending on extent of the intrusion, the intended use of the water, and whether the salinity exceeds standards for the intended use. In some areas such as Washington State, intrusion only reaches portions of the aquifer, affecting only certain water supply wells. Other aquifers have faced more widespread salinity contamination, significantly affecting groundwater supplies for the region. For instance, in Cape May, New Jersey, where groundwater extraction has lowered water tables by up to 30 meters, saltwater intrusion has caused closure of over 120 water supply wells since the 1940s.
The first physical formulations of saltwater intrusion were made by W. Badon-Ghijben (1888, 1889) and A. Herzberg (1901), thus called the Ghyben–Herzberg relation. They derived analytical solutions to approximate the intrusion behavior, which are based on a number of assumptions that do not hold in all field cases.
The figure shows the Ghyben–Herzberg relation. In the equation,
the thickness of the freshwater zone above sea level is represented as and that below sea level is represented as . The two thicknesses and , are related by and where is the density of freshwater and is the density of saltwater. Freshwater has a density of about 1.000 grams per cubic centimeter (g/cm3) at 20 °C, whereas that of seawater is about 1.025 g/cm3. The equation can be simplified to
The Ghyben–Herzberg ratio states, for every foot of fresh water in an unconfined aquifer above sea level, there will be forty feet of fresh water in the aquifer below sea level.
In the 20th century the vastly increased computing power available allowed the use of numerical methods (usually finite differences or finite elements) that need fewer assumptions and can be applied more generally.
Modeling of saltwater intrusion is considered difficult. Some typical difficulties that arise are:
Saltwater is also an issue where a lock separates saltwater from freshwater (for example the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks in Washington). In this case a collection basin was built from which the saltwater can be pumped back to the sea. Some of the intruding saltwater is also pumped to the fish ladder to make it more attractive to migrating fish.