This paper presents the results of a detailed field investigation that was performed for studying groundwater recharge processes and solute downward migration mechanisms prevailing in the unsaturated zone overlying a chalk aquifer in Belgium. Various laboratory measurements were performed on core samples collected during the drilling of boreholes in the experimental site. In the field, experiments consisted of well logging, infiltration tests in the unsaturated zone, pumping tests in the saturated zone and tracer tests in both the saturated and unsaturated zones. Results show that gravitational flows govern groundwater recharge and solute migration mechanisms in the unsaturated zone. In the variably saturated chalk, the migration and retardation of solutes is strongly influenced by recharge conditions. Under intense injection conditions, solutes migrate at high speed along the partially saturated fissures, downward to the saturated zone. At the same time, they are temporarily retarded in the almost immobile water located in the chalk matrix. Under normal recharge conditions, fissures are inactive and solutes migrate slowly through the chalk matrix. Results also show that concentration dynamics in the saturated zone are related to fluctuations of groundwater levels in the aquifer. A conceptual model is proposed to explain the hydrodispersive behaviour of the variably saturated chalk. Finally, the vulnerability of the chalk to contamination issues occurring at the land surface is discussed. © 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.
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