Morgenstern, U.; Reeves, R.R.; Daughney, C.J.; Cameron, S.G.; Gordon, D. 2005 Groundwater age and chemistry, and future nutrient load for selected Rotorua lakes catchments . Lower Hutt: Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences. Institute of Geological & Nuclear Sciences science report 2004/31 73 p.
Abstract: Hydrochemical analysis and age dating of groundwater and groundwater-fed streams were carried out in the Lake Rotorua and Okareka catchments to assess the past and current states, and future trends in groundwater chemistry. The study was undertaken because of declining lake water quality due to observed increases in nutrient loads entering these lakes. THe hydrogeology of the Rotorua Lakes area can be described as a permeable pumiceous surface tephra layer that allows easy penetration of rainwater recharge to deeper rhyolite and ignimbrite aquifers. These aquifers are essentially unconfined and yield high volumes of groundwater that discharges to spring-fed streams or directly to the lake. The hydrochemistry of groundwaters is characterised by much lower concentrations of Ca, Mg and SO4 and much higher concentrations of PO4-P and SiO2 than other groundwaters in New Zealand. This chemical signature reflects the volcanic origin of the aquifer lithology. Because the aquifers in the Rotorua area have large water storage capacity there is a long residence time for nutrient-laden groundwater. It takes decades for the water after being recharged to reach the spring-fed streams and the lakes. The large groundwater bodies have therefore 'silently' been contaminated over decades, with the old pristine groundwater being progressively replaced by younger nutrient-laden water that will discharge to the spring-fed streams and finally to the lakes. This study involved age dating of springs, wells, and groundwater-fed streams to assess how long it takes for nutrient-enriched groundwater to travel from pastoral land to springs and streams, and to the lakes. Most of the springs and wells in the Lake Rotorua and Okareka catchments contained relatively old groundwaters, with mean residence times between 40 and >170 years (only two wells have younger water of 26 and 31 years mean residence time). This corresponds to young water fractions (water recharged within the last 55 years since catchment development) of less than 80%. Significant fractions of these groundwaters were therefore recharged before land-use intensification, and these water discharges do not yet reflect the full effect of current land-use practices on the groundwater quality. Further deterioration of water quality must therefore be expected. Age dating of the main groundwater-fed streams in the Lake Rotorua catchment revealed mostly mean residence times between 35 and 130 years. The streams with the oldest water are Waingaehe (127 years), Hamurana (110 years), Awahou (61 years), and Utuhina streams (48 years). Only Ngongotaha Stream has younger water of 16 years mean residence time. Total phosphorus increases with groundwater age, concentration in young groundwater is 20 years. Trends for nitrate (NO3), potassium (K) and sulphate (SO4) indicate that these are increased in the young groundwaters as result of land-use intensification. The natural background level of groundwater NO3-N is determined from old groundwater (pre-land-use intensification) to 0.14 mg/L, and the current level is determined from young groundwater (post-land-use intensification) to 1.6 mg/L. Therefore, 9% of the current level can be attributed to the natural background, and 91% to land-use impacts. This is an increase in NO3 by a factor 11. Potassium concentrations indicate a natural background level of 0.6 mg/L and a current level of 3.8 mg/L. About 16% of the current K level is therefore natural background, and 84% is land-use impact, an increase by a factor 6. SO4 shows a trend of elevated values of 3 mg/L in young waters compared to older water of 1.5 mg/L. Nitrogen loading was calculated from a mass budget for the major streams to Lake Rotorua. Only NO3-N, the main N component, was considered. Most of the nutrient flux via surface streams (ca. 90%) is contributed by the western catchment - Hamurana, Awahou, Puarenga, Waiteti, Ngongotaha and Utuhina streams. The total load of NO3-N is currently 376 t/year, and this is expected to increase to 577 t/year at steady state if the nitrate NO3-N input in the catchment continues at the current level. (auth)