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Professional Paper 1620

Prepared in cooperation with Oregon Water Resources Department

Origin, Extent, and Thickness of Quaternary Geologic Units in the Willamette Valley, Oregon

By Jim E. O’Connor, Andrei Sarna-Wojcicki, Karl C. Wozniak, Danial J. Polette, and Robert J. Fleck

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Stratigraphic and chronologic information collected for Quaternary deposits in the Willamette Valley, Oregon, provides a revised stratigraphic framework that serves as a basis for a 1:250,000-scale map, as well as for thickness estimates of widespread Quaternary geologic units. We have mapped 11 separate Quaternary units that are differentiated on the basis of stratigraphic, topographic, pedogenic, and hydrogeologic properties. In summation, these units reflect four distinct episodes in the Quaternary geologic development of the Willamette Valley:

  1. Fluvial sands and gravels that underlie terraces flanking lowland margins and tributary valleys were probably deposited between 2.5 and 0.5 million years ago. They are the oldest widespread surficial Quaternary deposits in the valley. Their present positions and preservation are undoubtedly due to postdepositional tectonic deformation—either by direct tectonic uplift of valley margins, or by regional tectonic controls on local base level.
  2. Tertiary and Quaternary excavation or tectonic lowering of the Willamette Valley accommodated as much as 500 m (meters) of lacustrine and fluvial fill. Beneath the lowland floor, much of the upper 10 to 50 m of fill is Quaternary sand and gravel deposited by braided channel systems in subhorizontal sheets 2 to 10 m thick. These deposits grade to gravel fans 40 to 100 m thick where major Cascade Range rivers enter the valley and are traced farther upstream as much thinner valley trains of coarse gravel. The sand and gravel deposits have ages that range from greater than 420,000 to about 12,000 years old. A widely distributed layer of sand and gravel deposited at about 12 ka (kiloannum, thousands of years before the present) is looser and probably more permeable than older sand and gravel. Stratigraphic exposures and drillers’ logs indicate that this late Pleistocene unit is mostly between 5 and 20 m thick where it has not been subsequently eroded by the Willamette River and its major tributaries.
  3. Between 15,000 and 12,700 years ago, dozens of floods from Glacial Lake Missoula flowed up the Willamette Valley from the Columbia River, depositing up to 35 m of gravel, sand, silt, and clay.
  4. Subsequent to 12,000 years ago, Willamette River sediment and flow regimes changed significantly: the Pleistocene braided river systems that had formed vast plains of sand and gravel evolved to incised and meandering rivers that are constructing today’s fine-grained floodplains and gravelly channel deposits. Sub-surface channel facies of this unit are loose and unconsolidated and are highly permeable zones of substantial groundwater flow that is likely to be well connected to surface flow in the Willamette River and major tributaries. Stratigraphic exposures and drillers’ logs indicate that this unit is mostly between 5 and 15 m thick.

For additional information contact:
Director, Oregon Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2130 SW 5th Avenue
Portland, Oregon 97201

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Suggested citation:

O’Connor, J.E., Sarna-Wojcick, A., Woznikak, K.C., Polette, D.J., Fleck, R.J., 2001, Origin, Extent, and Thickness of Quaternary Geologic Units in the Willamette Valley, Oregon; U.S. Geological Survey, Professional Paper 1620, 51 p.


Geographic and Geologic Setting
Quaternary Deposits in the Willamette Valley
Thickness and Extent of Quaternary Deposits
Summary and Conclusions
Appendix 1—40Ar/39Ar Analyses of Volcanic Materials
Appendix 2—Analytical Methods and Results for Tephra Analysis
Appendix 3—14C Age Analyses

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