The successful performance of reclamation soil covers over saline-sodic overburden associated with oil sands mining in northern Alberta, Canada, depends on the dynamics of water and salt migration within these covers. Subsurface flow exerts a significant control on the distribution of soil moisture and salts within reclaimed landscapes. A conceptual model for fracture-dominated lateral subsurface flow and transport in a sloping clay-rich reclamation soil cover over saline-sodic shale overburden was developed based on an interpretation of field observations. This model was then verified through the use of numerical simulations. The conceptual model assumes that lateral subsurface flow is dominated by a preferential flow system and that chemical equilibration between fresh snowmelt water stored in the macropores and higher concentration pore water stored in the soil matrix is nearly instantaneous. Numerical modeling of subsurface flow indicated that the discharge rate and cumulative volume are controlled by the bulk saturated hydraulic conductivity and drainable fracture porosity, respectively. A drainable fracture porosity ranging from 3 to 4% yielded a simulated cumulative discharge similar to measured values. A pseudo-equivalent porous medium transport model was used to simulate the Na+ concentration of collected subsurface flow with time. General agreement between measured and simulated values demonstrates that discharge concentrations increase as the depth of perched water diminishes with time and water drains through macropores associated with a matrix of higher solute concentrations lower in the cover profile.

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