Improving our understanding of hydrogeological processes on the western flank of the central Andes is critical to communities living in this arid region. Groundwater emerging as springs at low elevations provides water for drinking, agriculture, and baseflow. However, the high-elevation sources of recharge and groundwater flow paths that convey groundwater to lower elevations where the springs emerge remain poorly quantified in the volcanic mountain terrain of southern Peru. In this study, we identified recharge zones and groundwater flow paths supporting springs east of the city of Arequipa and the potential for recharge within the high-elevation closed-basin Lagunas Salinas salar. We used general chemistry and isotopic tracers (δ18O, δ2H, and 3H) in springs, surface waters (rivers and the salar), and precipitation (rain and snow) sampled from March 2019 through February 2020 to investigate these processes. We obtained monthly samples from six springs, bimonthly samples from four rivers, and various samples from high-elevation springs during the dry season. The monthly isotopic composition of spring water was invariable seasonally in this study and compared to published values from a decade prior, suggesting that the source of recharge and groundwater flow paths that support spring flow is relatively stable with time. The chemistry of springs in the low-elevations and mid-elevations (2500 to 2900 m a.s.l.) point towards a mix of recharge from the salar basin (4300 m a.s.l.) and mountain-block recharge (MBR) in or above a queñuales forest ecosystem at ∼ 4000 m a.s.l. on the adjacent Pichu Pichu volcano. Springs that clustered along the Río Andamayo, including those at 2900 m a.s.l., had higher chloride concentrations, indicating higher proportions of interbasin groundwater flow from the salar basin likely facilitated by a high degree of faulting along the Río Andamayo valley compared to springs further away from that fault network. A separate groundwater flow path was identified by higher sulfate concentrations (and lower Cl-/SO4-2 ratios) within the Pichu Pichu volcanic mountain range separating the city from the salar. We conclude that the salar basin is not a hydrologic dead end. Instead, it is a local topographic low where surface runoff during the wet season, groundwater from springs, and subsurface groundwater flow paths from the surrounding mountains converge in the basin, and some mixture of this water supports groundwater flow out of the salar basin via interbasin groundwater flow. In this arid location, high-elevation forests and the closed-basin salar are important sources of recharge supporting low-elevation springs. These features should be carefully managed to prevent impacts on the down-valley water quality and quantity.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
This work was funded by the Universidad Nacional de San Agust?n (UNSA), Peru, through the Arequipa Nexus Institute for Food, Energy, Water, and the Environment.
© Author(s) 2022.