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Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5015

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Hydrochemical Regions of the Glacial Aquifer System, Northern United States, and Their Environmental and Water-Quality Characteristics

By Terri L. Arnold, Kelly L. Warner, George E. Groschen, James P. Caldwell, and Stephen J. Kalkhoff


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The glacial aquifer system in the United States is a large (953,000 square miles) regional aquifer system of heterogeneous composition. As described in this report, the glacial aquifer system includes all unconsolidated geologic material above bedrock that lies on or north of the line of maximum glacial advance within the United States. Examining ground-water quality on a regional scale indicates that variations in the concentrations of major and minor ions and some trace elements most likely are the result of natural variations in the geologic and physical environment. Study of the glacial aquifer system was designed around a regional framework based on the assumption that two primary characteristics of the aquifer system can affect water quality: intrinsic susceptibility (hydraulic properties) and vulnerability (geochemical properties). The hydrochemical regions described in this report were developed to identify and explain regional spatial variations in ground-water quality in the glacial aquifer system within the hypothetical framework context. Data analyzed for this study were collected from 1991 to 2003 at 1,716 wells open to the glacial aquifer system.

Cluster analysis was used to group wells with similar ground-water concentrations of calcium, chloride, fluoride, magnesium, potassium, sodium, sulfate, and bicarbonate into five unique groups. Maximum Likelihood Classification was used to make the extrapolation from clustered groups of wells, defined by points, to areas of similar water quality (hydrochemical regions) defined in a geospatial model. Spatial data that represented average annual precipitation, average annual temperature, land use, land-surface slope, vertical soil permeability, average soil clay content, texture of surficial deposits, type of surficial deposit, and potential for ground-water recharge were used in the Maximum Likelihood Classification to classify the areas so the characteristics of the hydrochemical regions would resemble the characteristics of the clusters. The result of the Maximum Likelihood Classification is a map showing five hydrochemical regions of the glacial aquifer system.

Statistical analysis of ion concentrations (calcium, chloride, fluoride, magnesium, sodium, potassium, sulfate, and bicarbonate) in samples collected from wells completed in the glacial aquifer system illustrates that variations in water quality can be explained, in part, by related environmental characteristics that control the movement of ground water through the aquifer system. A comparison of median concentrations of chemical constituents in ground water among the five hydrochemical regions indicates that ground water in the Midwestern Agricultural Region, the Urban-Influenced Region, and the Western Agriculture and Grassland Region has the highest concentrations of major and minor ions, whereas ground water in the Northern and Great Lakes Forested Region and the Mountain and Coastal Forested Region has the lowest concentrations of these ions. Median concentrations of barium, arsenic, lithium, boron, strontium, and nitrite plus nitrate as nitrogen also are significantly different among the hydrochemical regions.

Version 1.0

Posted September 2008

For additional information contact:
Director, USGS, Illinois Water Science Center
1201 West University Avenue, Suite 100
Urbana, IL 61801–2347
Phone: (217) 344–0037
Fax: (217) 344-0082

Or visit the Illinois Water Science Center Web site at:

Terri L. Arnold, GIS Specialist
National Water-Quality Assessment Program
1201 West University Ave., Suite 100
Urbana, Illinois 61801-2347, (217) 328-9702

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Suggested citation:

Arnold, T.L., Warner, K.L., Groschen, G.E., Caldwell, J.P., and Kalkhoff, S.J., 2008, Hydrochemical regions of the glacial aquifer system, northern United States, and their environmental and water-quality characteristics: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2008–5015, 83 p. with appendixes.





Methods and Results of Data Analysis

Hydrochemical Regions

Local- to Regional-Scale Comparisons of Water Quality





Appendix A Tables

Appendix B Spatial Data Layers Used to Map Hydrochemical Regions

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