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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5248

Prepared in cooperation with the California State Water Resources Control Board
A product of the California Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) Program

Status and Understanding of Groundwater Quality in the San Francisco Bay Groundwater Basins, 2007: California GAMA Priority Basin Project

By Mary C. Parsons, Justin T. Kulongoski, and Kenneth Belitz

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (8.7 MB)Abstract

Groundwater quality in the approximately 620-square-mile (1,600-square-kilometer) San Francisco Bay study unit was investigated as part of the Priority Basin Project of the Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) Program. The study unit is located in the Southern Coast Ranges of California, in San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties. The GAMA Priority Basin Project is being conducted by the California State Water Resources Control Board in collaboration with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The GAMA San Francisco Bay study was designed to provide a spatially unbiased assessment of the quality of untreated groundwater within the primary aquifer system, as well as a statistically consistent basis for comparing water quality throughout the State. The assessment is based on water-quality and ancillary data collected by the USGS from 79 wells in 2007 and is supplemented with water-quality data from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) database. The primary aquifer system is defined by the depth interval of the wells listed in the CDPH database for the San Francisco Bay study unit. The quality of groundwater in shallower or deeper water-bearing zones may differ from that in the primary aquifer system; shallower groundwater may be more vulnerable to surficial contamination.

The first component of this study, the status of the current quality of the groundwater resource, was assessed by using data from samples analyzed for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides, and naturally occurring inorganic constituents, such as major ions and trace elements. Water- quality data from the CDPH database also were incorporated for this assessment. This status assessment is intended to characterize the quality of groundwater resources within the primary aquifer system of the San Francisco Bay study unit, not the treated drinking water delivered to consumers by water purveyors.

Relative-concentrations (sample concentration divided by the benchmark concentration) were used for evaluating groundwater quality for those constituents that have Federal and (or) California benchmarks. A relative-concentration greater than (>) 1.0 indicates a concentration greater than a benchmark, and a relative-concentration less than or equal to (≤) 1.0 indicates a concentration equal to or less than a benchmark. Relative-concentrations of organic and special-interest constituents were classified as low (relative- concentration ≤ 0.1), moderate (0.1 < relative- concentration ≤ 1.0), or high (relative-concentration > 1.0). Inorganic constituent relative- concentrations were classified as low (relative-concentration ≤ 0.5), moderate (0.5 < relative-concentration ≤ 1.0), or high (relative- concentration > 1.0). A lower threshold value of relative-concentration was used to distinguish between low and moderate values of organic constituents because organic constituents are generally less prevalent and have smaller relative-concentrations than naturally occurring inorganic constituents.

Aquifer-scale proportion was used as the metric for evaluating regional-scale groundwater quality. High aquifer-scale proportion is defined as the percentage of the primary aquifer system that has relative-concentration greater than 1.0 for a particular constituent or class of constituents; proportion is based on an areal rather than a volumetric basis. Moderate and low aquifer-scale proportions were defined as the percentages of the primary aquifer system that have moderate and low relative-concentrations, respectively. Two statistical approaches—grid-based and spatially weighted—were used to evaluate aquifer-scale proportion for individual constituents and classes of constituents. Grid-based and spatially weighted estimates were comparable in the San Francisco Bay study unit (90-percent confidence intervals).

Inorganic constituents with health-based benchmarks were present at high relative-concentrations in 5.1 percent of the primary aquifer system, and at moderate relative-concentrations in 25 percent. The high aquifer-scale proportion of inorganic constituents primarily reflected high aquifer-scale proportions of barium (3.0 percent) and nitrate (2.1 percent). Inorganic constituents with secondary maximum contaminant levels were present at high relative-concentrations in 14 percent of the primary aquifer system and at moderate relative-concentrations in 33 percent. The constituents present at high relative-concentrations included total dissolved solids (7.0 percent), chloride (6.1 percent), manganese (12 percent), and iron (3.0 percent). Organic constituents with health-based benchmarks were present at high relative-concentrations in 0.6 percent and at moderate relative-concentrations in 12 percent of the primary aquifer system. Of the 202 organic constituents analyzed for, 32 were detected. Three organic constituents were frequently detected (in 10 percent or more of samples): the trihalomethane chloroform, the solvent 1,1,1-trichloroethane and the refrigerant 1,1,2-trichlorotrifluoroethane. One special-interest constituent, perchlorate, was detected at moderate relative-concentrations in 42 percent of the primary aquifer system.

The second component of this work, the understanding assessment, identified some of the primary natural and human factors that may affect groundwater quality by evaluating land use, physical characteristics of the wells, and geochemical conditions of the aquifer. Results from these evaluations were used to explain the occurrence and distribution of constituents in the study unit.

First posted March 29, 2013

For additional information contact:
Director, California Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
6000 J Street, Placer Hall
Sacramento, California 95819

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Suggested citation:

Parsons, M.C., Kulongoski, J.T., and Belitz, Kenneth, 2013, Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the San Francisco Bay groundwater basins, 2007—California GAMA Priority Basin Project: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5248, 76 p.




Hydrogeologic Setting of the San Francisco Bay Study Unit


Potential Explanatory Factors

Status and Understanding of Water Quality



References Cited

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