Hydrochemical and environmental isotope analysis of groundwater and surface water in a dry mountain region in Northern Chile

Environ Monit Assess. 2018 May 8;190(6):334. doi: 10.1007/s10661-018-6664-9.


This case study examines the geological imprint and land use practices on water quality in the arid Huasco Valley against the backdrop of ongoing water conflicts surrounding competing demands for agriculture and mining. The study is based on a detailed analysis of spatial and temporal variations of monthly surface and bi-monthly groundwater quality samples measured during the Chilean summer of 2015/16. Additional information on source regions and river-groundwater interactions were collected using stable water isotopes. Regarding the geological impact on water quality, high concentrations of Ca2+, SO42- and HCO3- indicate a strong influence of magmatic rocks, which constitute this high mountain basin, on the hydrochemistry. Piper and Gibbs-diagrams revealed that all samples show a homogenous distribution dominated by rock-water interactions. Measured NO3- concentrations in surface water are generally low. However, groundwater aquifers exhibit higher concentrations. Mn is the only heavy metal with elevated concentrations in surface water, which are possibly related to mining activities. The results illustrate that both surface and groundwater can be classified as suitable for irrigation. In addition, groundwater has been found to be suitable as drinking water. High similarities in isotopic signatures indicate a strong connection between surface and groundwater. Isotopic analyses suggest a strong influence of evaporation. This combined approach of hydrogeochemical and isotopic analysis proved to be a helpful tool in characterizing the catchment and can serve as a basis for future sustainable water management.

Keywords: Andean mining; Environmental isotopes; Huasco; Hydrochemistry; Land use impacts; Northern Chile; Water quality.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Bicarbonates / analysis
  • Calcium / analysis
  • Chile
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Groundwater / chemistry*
  • Isotopes / analysis
  • Metals, Heavy / analysis
  • Mining
  • Rivers / chemistry
  • Sulfates / analysis
  • Water / analysis
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Water Quality*


  • Bicarbonates
  • Isotopes
  • Metals, Heavy
  • Sulfates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Water
  • Calcium