From Bureau of Economic Geology, The University of Texas at Austin (
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AGU Fall Meeting, San Francisco, California, December 5–9, 2005

Identifying Salinity Sources and Quantifying
Salinity Loads along Two Texas Streams Using Stream-axis Airborne EM and Focused Hydrochemistry

J. G. Paine, E. W. Collins, H. S. Nance, and K. Niemann


We delineated natural and oil-field salinity sources that degrade water quality in the upper Colorado River (west Texas) and Petronila Creek (Texas coast) by combining multi-frequency airborne EM measurements of apparent ground conductivity with chemical analyses of surface water at key stream locations. To reduce the cost of high-resolution airborne surveying over such large areas, we first flew along the stream axes and then examined preliminary results in the field to identify likely salinized stream segments. We then flew more detailed surveys over these areas rather than over the entire basin. Stream-axis EM data also helped identify water-sampling locations upstream and downstream from each salinized segment. We used these data to calculate salinity loads and discriminate among possible natural and oil-field salinity sources. We acquired stream-axis airborne EM data along 437 km of the upper Colorado River and its major tributaries using a Geophex GEM-2A instrument operating at five frequencies between 450 Hz and 39 kHz. Increases in chloride, sulfate, and total salinity loading in the upper Colorado River basin between Lake Thomas and Ivie Reservoir occur along eleven segments of elevated apparent conductivity identified from airborne EM data. Each segment encompasses areas of baseflow salinity contributions to the stream from natural dissolution of evaporite minerals in the Permian basin, from oil-field produced water, or both. Analyses of surface water confirm increases salinity loading associated with each segment. Airborne EM data acquired on the coast along Petronila Creek and within a corridor centered on it revealed three stream segments with elevated ground conductivity. Increases in chloride, sulfate, and total salinity loading are attributed to shallow baseflow contributions along the three segments. Using airborne EM and hydrochemistry data, we interpret the dominant salinization mechanism within the two upstream segments to be historic discharge of produced water into unlined drainage ditches and pits, infiltration into sandy Pleistocene channel deposits, lateral migration as far as several kilometers, and discharge into the stream. Airborne EM and hydrochemical data suggest a combination of oil-field and seawater salinity contributions at the most downstream Petronila Creek segment.