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Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5053

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

Status and Understanding of Groundwater Quality in the South Coast Range–Coastal Study Unit, 2008: California GAMA Priority Basin Project

By Carmen A. Burton, Michael T. Land, and Kenneth Belitz

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (9.5 MB)Abstract

Groundwater quality in the South Coast Range–Coastal (SCRC) study unit was investigated from May through November 2008 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 Range hydrologic province and includes parts of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. The GAMA Priority Basin Project is conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in collaboration with the California State Water Resources Control Board and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The GAMA Priority Basin Project was designed to provide a statistically unbiased, spatially distributed assessment of untreated groundwater quality within the primary aquifer system. The primary aquifer system is defined as that part of the aquifer corresponding to the perforation interval of wells listed in the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) database for the SCRC study unit.

The assessments for the SCRC study unit were based on water-quality and ancillary data collected in 2008 by the USGS from 55 wells on a spatially distributed grid, and water-quality data from the CDPH database. Two types of assessments were made: (1) status, assessment of the current quality of the groundwater resource, and (2) understanding, identification of the natural and human factors affecting groundwater quality. Water-quality and ancillary data were collected from an additional 15 wells for the understanding assessment. The assessments characterize untreated groundwater quality, not the quality of treated drinking water delivered to consumers by water purveyors.

The first component of this study, the status assessment of groundwater quality, used data from samples analyzed for anthropogenic constituents such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and pesticides, as well as naturally occurring inorganic constituents such as major ions and trace elements. Although the status assessment applies to untreated groundwater, Federal and California regulatory and non-regulatory water-quality benchmarks that apply to drinking water are used to provide context for the results. Relative-concentrations (sample concentration divided by benchmark concentration) were used for evaluating groundwater. A relative-concentration greater than (>) 1.0 indicates a concentration greater than the benchmark and is classified as high. Inorganic constituents are classified as moderate if relative-concentrations are >0.5 and less than or equal to (≤) 1.0, or low if relative-concentrations are ≤0.5. For organic constituents, the boundary between moderate and low relative-concentrations was set at 0.1.

Aquifer-scale proportion was used in the status assessment as the primary metric for evaluating regional-scale groundwater quality. High aquifer-scale proportion is defined as the areal percentage of the primary aquifer system with a high relative-concentration for a particular constituent or class of constituents. Moderate and low aquifer-scale proportions were defined as the areal percentage of the primary aquifer system with moderate and low relative-concentrations, respectively. Two statistical approaches—grid-based and spatially weighted—were used to evaluate aquifer-scale proportions for individual constituents and classes of constituents. Grid-based and spatially weighted estimates were comparable for the study (within 90 percent confidence intervals).

For inorganic constituents with human-health benchmarks, relative-concentrations were high for at least one constituent for 33 percent of the primary aquifer system in the SCRC study unit. Arsenic, molybdenum, and nitrate were the primary inorganic constituents with human-health benchmarks that were detected at high relative-concentrations. Inorganic constituents with aesthetic benchmarks, referred to as secondary maximum contaminant levels (SMCLs), had high relative-concentrations for 35 percent of the primary aquifer system. Iron, manganese, total dissolved solids (TDS), and sulfate were the inorganic constituents with SMCLs detected at high relative-concentrations.

In contrast to inorganic constituents, organic constituents with human-health benchmarks were not detected at high relative-concentrations in the primary aquifer system in the SCRC study unit. Of the 205 organic constituents analyzed, 21 were detected—13 with human-health benchmarks. Perchloroethene (PCE) was the only VOC detected at moderate relative-concentrations. PCE, dichlorodifluoromethane (CFC-12), and chloroform were detected in more than 10 percent of the primary aquifer system. Of the two special-interest constituents, one was detected; perchlorate, which has a human-health benchmark, was detected at moderate relative-concentrations in 29 percent of the primary aquifer system and had a detection frequency of 60 percent in the SCRC study unit.

The second component of this study, the understanding assessment, identified the natural and human factors that may have affected groundwater quality in the SCRC study unit by evaluating statistical correlations between water-quality constituents and potential explanatory factors. The potential explanatory factors evaluated were land use, septic tank density, well depth and depth to top-of-perforations, groundwater age, density and distance to the nearest formerly leaking underground fuel tank (LUFT), pH, and dissolved oxygen (DO) concentration. Results of the statistical evaluations were used to explain the occurrence and distribution of constituents in the study unit.

DO was the primary explanatory factor influencing the concentrations of many inorganic constituents. Arsenic, iron, and manganese concentrations increased as DO concentrations decreased, consistent with patterns expected as a result of reductive dissolution of iron and (or) manganese oxides in aquifer sediments. Molybdenum concentrations increased in anoxic conditions and in oxic conditions with high pH, reflecting two mechanisms for the mobilization of molybdenum—reductive dissolution and pH-dependent desorption under oxic conditions from aquifer sediments. Nitrate concentrations decreased as DO concentrations decreased which would be consistent with degradation of nitrate under anoxic conditions (denitrification). It also is possible that nitrate concentrations decreased in relation to increasing depth and groundwater age and not as a result of denitrification.

Groundwater age was another explanatory factor frequently correlated to several inorganic constituents. Iron and manganese concentrations were higher in pre-modern (water recharged before 1952) or mixed-age groundwater. This correlation is one indication that iron and manganese are from natural sources. Nitrate, TDS, and sulfate concentrations were higher in modern groundwater (water recharged since 1952) and may indicate that human activities increase concentrations of nitrate, TDS, and sulfate.

Land use was a third explanatory factor frequently correlated with inorganic constituents. Nitrate, TDS, and sulfate concentrations were higher in agricultural land-use areas than in natural land-use areas, indicating that increased concentrations may be a result of agricultural practices.

Organic constituents usually were detected at low relative-concentrations; therefore, statistical analyses of relations to explanatory factors usually were done for classes of constituents (for example, pesticides or solvents) as well as for selected constituents. The number of VOCs detected in a well was not correlated to any of the explanatory factors evaluated. The number of pesticide and solvent detections and PCE and CFC-12 concentrations were higher in modern groundwater than in pre-modern groundwater. PCE and CFC-12 also were positively correlated to the density of LUFTs. PCE was negatively correlated to natural land use. Chloroform concentrations were positively correlated to the density of septic systems.

Perchlorate concentrations were greater in agricultural areas than in urban or natural areas. Correlation of perchlorate with DO may indicate that perchlorate biodegradation under anoxic conditions may occur. Anthropogenic sources have contributed perchlorate to groundwater in the SCRC study unit, although low levels of perchlorate may occur naturally.

First posted September 26, 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:

Burton, C.A., Land, M.T., and Belitz, Kenneth, 2013, Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the South Coast Range–Coastal study unit, 2008—California GAMA Priority Basin Project: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5053, 86 p.




Description of South Coast Range–Coastal Study Unit


Potential Explanatory Factors

Status and Understanding of Water Quality



References Cited

Appendix A. Selection of California Department of Public Health Grid Wells

Appendix B. Comparison of CDPH and GAMA Priority Basin Data

Appendix C. Calculation of Aquifer-Scale Proportions

Appendix D. Attribution of Potential Explanatory Factors

Appendix E. Data not Published in the USGS Data-Series Report

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