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The presence of methane and other hydrocarbons in domestic-use groundwater aquifers poses significant environmental and human health concerns. Isotopic measurements are often relied upon as indicators of groundwater aquifer contamination with methane. While these parameters are used to infer microbial metabolisms, there is growing evidence that isotopes present an incomplete picture of subsurface microbial processes. This study examined the relationships between microbiology and chemistry in groundwater wells located in the Denver-Julesburg Basin of Colorado, a rapidly urbanizing area with active oil and gas development. A primary goal was to determine if microbial data can reliably indicate the quantities and sources of groundwater methane. Comprehensive chemical and molecular analyses were performed on 39 groundwater well samples from five aquifers. Elevated methane concentrations were found in only one aquifer, and both isotopic and microbial data support a microbial origin. Microbial parameters had similar explanatory power as chemical parameters for predicting sample methane concentrations. Furthermore, a subset of samples with unique microbiology corresponded with unique chemical signatures that may be useful indicators of methane gas migration, potentially from nearby coal seams interacting with the aquifer. Microbial data may allow for more accurate determination of groundwater contamination and improved long-term water quality monitoring compared solely to isotopic and chemical data in areas with microbial methane.


Lee F Stanish, Owen A Sherwood, Greg Lackey, Stephen Osborn, Charles E Robertson, J Kirk Harris, Norman Pace, Joseph N Ryan. Microbial and Biogeochemical Indicators of Methane in Groundwater Aquifers of the Denver Basin, Colorado. Environmental science & technology. 2021 Jan 05;55(1):292-303

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PMID: 33296185

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