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Data Series 534

Prepared in cooperation with the California State Water Resources Control Board

Groundwater-Quality Data for the Sierra Nevada Study Unit, 2008: Results from the California GAMA Program

By Jennifer L. Shelton, Miranda S. Fram, Cathy M. Munday, and Kenneth Belitz

ABSTRACT

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Groundwater quality in the approximately 25,500-square-mile Sierra Nevada study unit was investigated in June through October 2008, as part of the Priority Basin Project of the Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) Program. The GAMA Priority Basin Project is being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). The Sierra Nevada study was designed to provide statistically robust assessments of untreated groundwater quality within the primary aquifer systems in the study unit, and to facilitate statistically consistent comparisons of groundwater quality throughout California. The primary aquifer systems (hereinafter, primary aquifers) are defined by the depth of the screened or open intervals of the wells listed in the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) database of wells used for public and community drinking-water supplies. The quality of groundwater in shallower or deeper water-bearing zones may differ from that in the primary aquifers; shallow groundwater may be more vulnerable to contamination from the surface.

In the Sierra Nevada study unit, groundwater samples were collected from 84 wells (and springs) in Lassen, Plumas, Butte, Sierra, Yuba, Nevada, Placer, El Dorado, Amador, Alpine, Calaveras, Tuolumne, Madera, Mariposa, Fresno, Inyo, Tulare, and Kern Counties. The wells were selected on two overlapping networks by using a spatially-distributed, randomized, grid-based approach. The primary grid-well network consisted of 30 wells, one well per grid cell in the study unit, and was designed to provide statistical representation of groundwater quality throughout the entire study unit. The lithologic grid-well network is a secondary grid that consisted of the wells in the primary grid-well network plus 53 additional wells and was designed to provide statistical representation of groundwater quality in each of the four major lithologic units in the Sierra Nevada study unit: granitic, metamorphic, sedimentary, and volcanic rocks. One natural spring that is not used for drinking water was sampled for comparison with a nearby primary grid well in the same cell.

Groundwater samples were analyzed for organic constituents (volatile organic compounds [VOC], pesticides and pesticide degradates, and pharmaceutical compounds), constituents of special interest (N-nitrosodimethylamine [NDMA] and perchlorate), naturally occurring inorganic constituents (nutrients, major ions, total dissolved solids, and trace elements), and radioactive constituents (radium isotopes, radon-222, gross alpha and gross beta particle activities, and uranium isotopes). Naturally occurring isotopes and geochemical tracers (stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in water, stable isotopes of carbon, carbon-14, strontium isotopes, and tritium), and dissolved noble gases also were measured to help identify the sources and ages of the sampled groundwater.

Three types of quality-control samples (blanks, replicates, and samples for matrix spikes) each were collected at approximately 10 percent of the wells sampled for each analysis, and the results for these samples were used to evaluate the quality of the data for the groundwater samples. Field blanks rarely contained detectable concentrations of any constituent, suggesting that contamination from sample collection, handling, and analytical procedures was not a significant source of bias in the data for the groundwater samples. Differences between replicate samples were within acceptable ranges, with few exceptions. Matrix-spike recoveries were within acceptable ranges for most compounds.

This study did not attempt to evaluate the quality of water delivered to consumers; after withdrawal from the ground, groundwater typically is treated, disinfected, or blended with other waters to maintain water quality. Regulatory benchmarks apply to finished drinking water that is served to the consumer, not to untreated groundwater. However, to provide some context for the results, concentrations of constituents measured in the groundwater were compared with regulatory and nonregulatory health-based benchmarks established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and CDPH and with nonregulatory aesthetic and technical benchmarks established by CDPH. Comparisons between data collected for this study and drinking-water benchmarks are for illustrative purposes only and do not indicate compliance or noncompliance with regulatory benchmarks.

All organic constituents and most inorganic constituents that were detected in groundwater samples from the 30 primary grid wells in the Sierra Nevada study unit were detected at concentrations less than drinking-water benchmarks.

Of the 150 organic and special-interest constituents analyzed, 21 were detected in groundwater samples; all concentrations were less than regulatory and nonregulatory health-based benchmarks, and most were less than 1/10th of benchmark levels. One or more organic constituents were detected in 37 percent of the primary grid wells, and perchlorate was detected in 27 percent of the primary grid wells.

Most samples analyzed for inorganic and radioactive constituents had concentrations or activities less than regulatory and nonregulatory health-based benchmarks. Nutrients were not detected at concentrations greater than health-based benchmarks. Six of the 30 primary grid wells (20 percent) and 7 of the 53 lithologic grid wells had concentrations of or activities for one or two constituents that were greater than the benchmarks. Constituents present in one or more samples at concentrations or activities greater than health-based benchmarks were arsenic (5 wells, MCL-US), gross alpha particle activity (4 wells, MCL-US), boron (2 wells, NL-CA), fluoride (1 well, MCL-CA), and selenium (1 well, MCL-US). Two of the wells that had high gross alpha particle activities had uranium concentrations (MCL-CA) and uranium activities (MCL-CA) greater than the benchmark levels. Four of the 29 samples analyzed had activities of radon-222 greater than the proposed alternative MCL-US.

Most samples analyzed for inorganic constituents that had nonregulatory, aesthetic-based benchmarks (SMCLs) had concentrations less than these benchmarks. Total dissolved solids concentrations were less than the upper SMCL-CA in all 83 primary and lithologic grid well samples, and TDS concentrations were less than the recommended SMCL-CA in 79 of these samples. Manganese concentrations were greater than the SMCL-CA in 2 of the 30 primary grid wells (7 percent) and in 6 of the 53 lithologic grid wells, and iron concentrations were greater than the SMCL-CA in the same 2 primary grid wells and in 5 of the same lithologic grid wells.

First posted September 30, 2010

For additional information contact:
Director, California Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
6000 J Street, Placer Hall> Sacramento, California 95819
http://ca.water.usgs.gov/

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Suggested citation:

Shelton, J.L., Fram, M.S., Munday, C.M., and Belitz, Kenneth, 2010, Groundwater-quality data for the Sierra Nevada study unit, 2008: Results from the California GAMA program: U.S. Geological Survey Data Series 534, 106 p.



Contents

Abstract

Introduction

Methods

Water-Quality Results

Future Work

Summary

Acknowledgments

References Cited

Appendix


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