Link to USGS home page.
California Water Science Center

Assessment of Shallow Ground-Water Quality in Recently Urbanized Areas of Sacramento, California, 1998

U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigation Report 2005-5148 (ONLINE ONLY)

By Jennifer L. Shelton

Sacramento, California 2005

Complete accessible text of report (3.0 MB PDF)
Cover of Report (808KB)

To view PDF documents, you must have the Adobe Acrobat Reader (free from Adobe Systems) installed on your computer.
(download free copy of Acrobat Reader).


    Evidence for anthropogenic impact on shallow ground-water quality beneath recently developed urban areas of Sacramento, California, has been observed in the sampling results from 19 monitoring wells in 1998. Eight volatile organic compounds (VOCs), four pesticides, and one pesticide transformation product were detected in low concentrations, and nitrate, as nitrogen, was detected in elevated concentrations; all of these concentrations were below National and State primary and secondary maximum contaminant levels. VOC results from this study are more consistent with the results from urban areas nationwide than from agricultural areas in the Central Valley, indicating that shallow ground-water quality has been impacted by urbanization. VOCs detected may be attributed to either the chlorination of drinking water, such as trichloromethane (chloroform) detected in 16 samples, or to the use of gasoline additives, such as methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE), detected in 2 samples. Pesticides detected may be attributed to use on household lawns and gardens and rights-of-way, such as atrazine detected in three samples, or to past agricultural practices, and potentially to ground-water/surface-water interactions, such as bentazon detected in one sample from a well adjacent to the Sacramento River and downstream from where bentazon historically was used on rice. Concentrations of nitrate may be attributed to natural sources, animal waste, old septic tanks, and fertilizers used on lawns and gardens or previously used on agricultural crops. Seven sample concentrations of nitrate, as nitrogen, exceeded 3.0 milligrams per liter, a level that may indicate impact from human activities.

Ground-water recharge from rainfall or surface-water runoff also may contribute to the concentrations of VOCs and pesticides observed in ground water. Most VOCs and pesticides detected in ground-water samples also were detected in air and surface-water samples collected at sites within or adjacent to the recently developed urban areas.

Five arsenic sample concentrations exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) primary maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 milligrams per liter adopted in 2001. Measurements that exceeded USEPA or California Department of Health Services recommended secondary maximum contaminant levels include manganese, iron, chloride, total dissolved solids, and specific conductance. These exceedances are probably a result of natural processes.

Variations in stable isotope ratios of hydrogen (2H/1H) and oxygen (18O/16O) may indicate different sources or a mixing of recharge waters to the urban ground water. These variations also may indicate recharge directly from surface water in one well adjacent to the Sacramento River. Tritium concentrations indicate that most shallow ground water has been recharged since the mid-1950s, and tritium/helium-3 age dates suggest that recharge has occurred in the last 2 to 30 years in some areas. In areas where water table depths exceed 20 meters and wells are deeper, ground-water recharge may have occurred prior to 1950, but low concentrations of pesticides and VOCs detected in these deeper wells indicate a mixing of younger and older waters.

Overall, the recently urbanized areas can be divided into two groups. One group contains wells where few VOCs and pesticides were detected, nitrate mostly was not detected, and National and State maximum contaminant levels, including the USEPA MCL for arsenic, were exceeded; these wells are adjacent to rivers and generally are characterized by younger water, shallow (1 to 4 meters) water table, chemically reducing conditions, finer grained sediments, and higher organics in the soils. In contrast, the other group contains wells where more VOCs, pesticides, and elevated nitrate concentrations were detected; these wells are farther from rivers and are generally characterized by a mixture of young and old waters, intermediate to deep (7 to 35 meters) water table due to ground-water pumpage, oxygenated ground water, and coarser grained sediments.

Nitrate and specific conductance data for shallow wells sampled from 1970-98 in Sacramento County were compiled to examine the effects of urbanization on ground-water quality over the time since urban development has taken place. These data show that nitrate concentrations increased from the 1980s to the 1990s. This result may be due to the higher number of shallow wells that were sampled in the 1990s than in previous decades.


Purpose and Scope
Description of the Urban Study Area
Land and Water Use
Study Design and Methods
Delineation of the Urban Land-Use Study Area
Well Site Selection, Installation, and Construction
Sample Collection and Analyses
Sediment Samples
Ground-Water Samples
Quality-Control Data
Volatile Organic Compounds
Major Ions, Trace Elements, and Dissolved Organic Carbon
Determination of Hydrogeologic and Well-Construction Variables
Statistical Methods
Ground-Water Quality
Ground-Water Characteristics
Volatile Organic Compounds
Drinking-Water Standards Exceeded
Factors Affecting Ground-Water Quality
Ground-Water Age
Land Use
Air and Surface-Water Quality
Physical and Chemical Factors
Physical Factors
Chemical Factors
Multivariate Analysis
Nitrate and Specific Conductance in Ground Water by Land Use and Decade
Specific Conductance
Summary and Conclusions
References Cited

Document Accessibility: Adobe Systems Incorporated has information about PDFs and the visually impaired. This information provides tools to help make PDF files accessible. These tools convert Adobe PDF documents into HTML or ASCII text, which then can be read by a number of common screen-reading programs that synthesize text as audible speech. In addition, an accessible version of Acrobat Reader 5.0 for Windows (English only), which contains support for screen readers, is available. These tools and the accessible reader may be obtained free from Adobe at Adobe Access

Water Resources of California



FirstGov button  Take Pride in America button