Hydrogeologic Characterization of the Modesto Area, San Joaquin Valley, California

By Karen R. Burow, Jennifer L. Shelton, Joseph A. Hevesi, and Gary S. Weissmann



Scientific Investigations Report 2004-5232

Sacramento, California 2004


Prepared in cooperation with the
Modesto Irrigation District

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Hydrogeologic characterization was done to develop an understanding of the hydrogeologic setting near Modesto by maximizing the use of existing data and building on previous work in the region. A substantial amount of new lithologic and hydrologic data are available that allow a more complete and updated characterization of the aquifer system. In this report, geologic units are described, a database of well characteristics and lithology is developed and used to update the regional stratigraphy, a water budget is estimated for water year 2000, a three-dimensional spatial correlation map of aquifer texture is created, and recommendations for future data collection are summarized.


The general physiography of the study area is reflected in the soils. The oldest soils, which have low permeability, exist in terrace deposits, in the interfan areas between the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers, at the distal end of the fans, and along the San Joaquin River floodplain. The youngest soils have high permeability and generally have been forming on the recently deposited alluvium along the major stream channels. Geologic materials exposed or penetrated by wells in the Modesto area range from pre-Cretaceous rocks to recent alluvium; however, water-bearing materials are mostly Late Tertiary and Quaternary in age.


A database containing information from more than 3,500 drillers'logs was constructed to organize information on well characteristics and subsurface lithology in the study area. The database was used in conjunction with a limited number of geophysical logs and county soil maps to define the stratigraphic framework of the study area. Sequences of red paleosols were identified in the database and used as stratigraphic boundaries. Associated with these paleosols are very coarse grained incised valley-fill deposits. Some geophysical well logs and other sparse well information suggest the presence of one of these incised valley-fill deposits along and adjacent to the Tuolumne River east of Modesto, a feature that may have important implications for ground-water flow and transport in the region.


Although extensive work has been done by earlier investigators to define the structure of the Modesto area aquifer system, this report has resulted in some modification to the lateral extent of the Corcoran Clay and the regional dip of the Mehrten Formation. Well logs in the database indicating the presence of the Corcoran Clay were used to revise the eastern extent of the Corcoran Clay, which lies approximately parallel to the axis of valley. The Mehrten Formation is distinguished in the well-log database by its characteristic black sands consisting of predominantly andesitic fragments. Black sands in wells listed in the database indicate that the formation may lie as shallow as 120 meters (400 feet) below land surface under Modesto, approximately 90 meters (300 feet) shallower than previously thought.


The alluvial aquifer system in the Modesto area comprises an unconfined to semiconfined aquifer above and east of the Corcoran Clay confining unit and a confined aquifer beneath the Corcoran Clay. The unconfined aquifer is composed of alluvial sediments of the Modesto, Riverbank, and upper Turlock Lake formations. The unconfined aquifer east of the Corcoran Clay becomes semiconfined with depth due to the numerous discontinuous clay lenses and extensive paleosols throughout the aquifer thickness. The confined aquifer is composed primarily of alluvial sediments of the Turlock Lake and upper Mehrten Formations, extending from beneath the Corcoran Clay to the base of fresh water.


Ground water in the unconfined to semiconfined aquifer flows to the west and southwest. The primary source of present-day recharge is percolating excess irrigation water. The primary ground-water discharge is extensive ground-water pumping in the unconfined to semiconfined aquifer, imposing a significant component of vertical flow in the system.


A water budget was calculated for water year 2000 using a land-use approach. During water year 2000, the total water supply in the Modesto area was more than 2.5 billion m3 (cubic meter) (2 million acre-ft [acre-foot]). Surface-water deliveries accounted for 60 percent of the total water supply, whereas ground-water pumpage accounted for 40 percent. Ninety-four percent of the water supply was used to meet irrigation demand and approximately 6 percent was used to meet urban demand. The total recharge in the model area was estimated at 1.4 billion m3 (1,100,000 acre-ft). The largest component of recharge is from excess irrigation water (58 percent); precipitation in excess of crop requirements accounted for 41 percent of the recharge.


Geostatistical methods were used to develop a spatial correlation model of the percentage of coarse-grained texture in the Modesto area. The mean percentage coarse-grained texture calculated for each depth increment indicates a regional trend of decreasing coarse-grained texture with increasing depth, which is consistent with increasingly consolidated sediments with depth in the study area. The three-dimensional kriged estimates of percentage coarse-grained texture show significant heterogeneity in the texture of the sedimentary deposits. Assuming the hydraulic conductivity is correlated to the texture, the kriged result implies significant heterogeneity in the hydrogeologic framework.





Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area

Previous Studies


Compilation of the Existing Well Data

Water Budget Calculations

Stratigraphic and Geostatistical Analysis

Development of Primary and Derivative Datasets

Geostatistical Methods

Hydrogeologic Characterization

Physiography and Soils

Description of Geologic Units

Consolidated Rocks

Unconsolidated Deposits

Characteristics of Existing Wells

Lithology and Stratigraphy

Soils Data

Well Data

Turlock Lake Formation

Paleosols and Gravels

Corcoran Clay

Mehrten Formation

Hydrology and Water Use

Description of Aquifer System

Movement of Ground Water

Ground-Water Development

Hydraulic Properties

Water Budget

Water Supply


Regional Analysis Using Percentage of Coarse-Grained Texture

Description of Datasets

Three-Dimensional Model of Percentage of Coarse-Grained Texture

Data Requirements for Improvement of Ground-Water Management

Water Budget

Water-Level Data

Ground-Water and Surface-Water Interaction

Hydraulic Properties

Flow Path Characterization

Water Quality

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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