Miller, G. R., Y. Rubin, K. U. Mayer, and P. H. Benito. 2008. Modeling Vadose Zone Processes during Land Application of Food-Processing Waste Water in California’s Central Valley. J. Environ. Qual. 37:S-43-S-57. doi:10.2134/jeq2007.0320
Land application of food-processing waste water occurs throughout California’s Central Valley and may be degrading local ground water quality, primarily by increasing salinity and nitrogen levels. Natural attenuation is considered a treatment strategy for the waste, which often contains elevated levels of easily degradable organic carbon. Several key biogeochemical processes in the vadose zone alter the characteristics of the waste water before it reaches the ground water table, including microbial degradation, crop nutrient uptake, mineral precipitation, and ion exchange. This study used a process-based, multi-component reactive flow and transport model (MIN3P) to numerically simulate waste water migration in the vadose zone and to estimate its attenuation capacity. To address the high variability in site conditions and waste–stream characteristics, four food-processing industries were coupled with three site scenarios to simulate a range of land application outcomes. The simulations estimated that typically between 30 and 150% of the salt loading to the land surface reaches the ground water, resulting in dissolved solids concentrations up to sixteen times larger than the 500 mg L−1 water quality objective. Site conditions, namely the ratio of hydraulic conductivity to the application rate, strongly influenced the amount of nitrate reaching the ground water, which ranged from zero to nine times the total loading applied. Rock–water interaction and nitrification explain salt and nitrate concentrations that exceed the levels present in the waste water. While source control remains the only method to prevent ground water degradation from saline wastes, proper site selection and waste application methods can reduce the risk of ground water degradation from nitrogen compounds.