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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5123

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Groundwater Quality in the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu Basaltic-Rock and Basin-Fill Aquifers in the Northwestern United States and Hawaii, 1992–2010

By Lonna M. Frans, Michael G. Rupert, Charles D. Hunt, Jr., and Kenneth D. Skinner

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This assessment of groundwater-quality conditions of the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu for the period 1992–2010 is part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program. It shows where, when, why, and how specific water-quality conditions occur in groundwater of the three study areas and yields science-based implications for assessing and managing the quality of these water resources. The primary aquifers in the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu are mostly composed of fractured basalt, which makes their hydrology and geochemistry similar. In spite of the hydrogeologic similarities, there are climatic differences that affect the agricultural practices overlying the aquifers, which in turn affect the groundwater quality. Understanding groundwater-quality conditions and the natural and human factors that control groundwater quality is important because of the implications to human health, the sustainability of rural agricultural economies, and the substantial costs associated with land and water management, conservation, and regulation.

The principal regional aquifers of the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu are highly vulnerable to contamination by chemicals applied at the land surface; essentially, they are as vulnerable as many shallow surficial aquifers elsewhere. The permeable and largely unconfined character of principal aquifers in the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu allow water and chemicals to infiltrate to the water table despite depths to water commonly in the hundreds of feet. The aquifers are essentially unconfined over large areas, having few extensive clay layers to impede infiltration through permeable volcanic rock and alluvial sediments. Agriculture is intensive in all three study areas, and heavy irrigation has imposed large artificial flows of irrigation recharge that rival or exceed natural recharge rates. Fertilizers and pesticides applied at land surface are leached from soil and transported to deep water tables with the infiltrating irrigation recharge, resulting in a layer of degraded water quality overlying better quality regional groundwater beneath. This “irrigation-recharge layer” is best known on Oahu, where it has been studied since the 1960s; however, the extent of nitrate and pesticide contamination in the Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain indicate that the same situation exists in those areas. Contamination from agricultural and urban activities is present not only at shallow depths in surficial materials of the three areas, but extends regionally in the deep, principal bedrock aquifers that are tapped for drinking water by domestic and public-supply wells.

Naturally occurring constituents and nitrate concentrations above human-health benchmarks—Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), and Health-Based Screening Levels (HBSLs)—were more common in the Columbia Plateau and the Snake River Plain than in Oahu. Concentrations of anthropogenic constituents (constituents related to human activities) above human-health benchmarks were more common in Oahu. Naturally occurring contaminants, such as arsenic and radon, may be present in groundwater at concentrations of potential concern for human health in relatively undeveloped settings that otherwise may not be perceived as susceptible to contamination. Even though the median depth to groundwater in Oahu is more than 300 feet, the common occurrence of anthropogenic compounds in groundwater indicates that Oahu has a high susceptibility to contamination.

Nitrate concentrations in groundwater were above the national background concentrations of 1 milligram per liter (mg/L) in all three study areas. In the Columbia Plateau, nitrate exceeded the human-health benchmark of 10 mg/L in 20 percent of the wells sampled. In the Snake River Plain, nitrate exceeded the human-health benchmark of 10 mg/L in 3 percent of the wells sampled. Nitrate can persist in groundwater for years and even decades in the oxygen-rich groundwater of the Columbia Plateau and the Snake River Plain, so prudent groundwater protection measures are critical to protect drinking water resources by reducing nitrate leaching from the land surface.

Nitrate logistic regression models indicated that areas with a high percentage of land in crops (such as potatoes or sugarcane) and soils with low amounts of organic matter are most likely to have elevated nitrate concentrations in the groundwater. Areas where agricultural activities were absent had much lower probabilities of detecting elevated nitrate concentrations. The Columbia Plateau had a much higher probability of having elevated nitrate concentrations, with most of the land area having greater than a 50 percent probability of elevated nitrate concentrations. Oahu and the Snake River Plain had a much lower probability of having elevated nitrate concentrations because of their lower percentage of agricultural land.

Pesticides were detected at many sites in groundwater of the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu but generally at low concentrations below human-health benchmarks. Atrazine and its degradate (a compound produced from the breakdown of a parent pesticide), deethylatrazine, were the most commonly detected pesticides in groundwater sampled in the Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain. Bromacil was the most commonly detected pesticide on Oahu. The other pesticides most commonly detected in the study areas include simazine, hexazinone, metribuzin, diuron, prometon, metolachlor, p,p’-DDE, dieldrin, 2-4-D, and alachlor. DDE (a degradate of DDT) and dieldrin are still being detected in groundwater despite having been banned for more than 30 years. Codetection of multiple pesticides in water from a single well was common. The widespread occurrence of pesticides in groundwater in the study areas indicates that the groundwater is highly susceptible to pesticide contamination.

Some pesticides were detected in groundwater samples from all three study areas, but other pesticides were detected only in samples from Oahu, or only in samples from the Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain. This is because some pesticides (such as atrazine) are broad-spectrum pesticides that are used on many crops in many different areas of the United States. Other pesticides (such as simazine, metribuzin, and metolachlor) are used on row crops (such as potatoes, barley, and alfalfa) grown in the Columbia Plateau and Snake River Plain, but not on pineapple or sugarcane grown in Oahu.

Atrazine logistic-regression models indicate that areas with a high percentage of land in crops (such as potatoes or sugarcane), a low percentage of fallow land, and highly permeable soils with low amounts of organic matter are most likely to have atrazine detected in the groundwater. Areas where agricultural activities were absent had much lower probabilities of atrazine being detected. The Snake River Plain had a much higher probability of atrazine detections, with more than 50 percent of the land area having greater than a 50 percent probability of atrazine contamination. Oahu had a much lower probability of atrazine contamination, with only 24 percent of the land area having greater than a 50 percent probability of atrazine contamination.

Oahu and the Columbia Plateau had some of the highest percentages of soil fumigant detections in groundwater in the United States. Soil fumigants are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) used as pesticides, which are applied to soils to reduce populations of plant parasitic nematodes (harmful rootworms), weeds, fungal pathogens, and other soil-borne microorganisms. They are used in Oahu and the Columbia Plateau on crops such as pineapple and potatoes. All three areas (Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu) had fumigant concentrations exceeding human-health benchmarks for drinking water.

First posted July 18, 2012

For additional information contact:
Chief, National Water-Quality Assessment Program
U.S. Geological Survey
12201 Sunrise Valley Drive
Reston, Virginia 20192
http://water.usgs.gov/nawqa/

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Suggested citation:

Frans, L.M., Rupert, M.G., Hunt, C.D., Jr., and Skinner, K.D., 2012, Groundwater quality in the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu basaltic-rock and basin-fill aquifers in the Northwestern United States and Hawaii, 1992–2010: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5123, 84 p.



Contents

Foreword

Abstract

Introduction

Environmental and Hydrogeologic Setting in the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Hawaiian Principal Aquifers

Methods

Water-Quality Conditions

Pesticides in Groundwater of the Columbia Plateau, Snake River Plain, and Oahu

Volatile Organic Compounds

Trace Elements

Radon

Relation of Constituent Concentrations to Human-Health Benchmarks

Natural Processes and Human Activities Affecting the Quality of Water in the Aquifers

Summary

References Cited


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