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Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5174

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 Sierra Nevada Regional Study Unit, 2008: California GAMA Priority Basin Project

By Miranda S. Fram and Kenneth Belitz

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (14.7 MB)Abstract

Groundwater quality in the Sierra Nevada Regional (SNR) study unit was investigated as part of the California State Water Resources Control Board’s Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment Program Priority Basin Project. The study was designed to provide statistically unbiased assessments of the quality of untreated groundwater within the primary aquifer system of the Sierra Nevada. The primary aquifer system for the SNR study unit was delineated by the depth intervals over which wells in the State of California’s database of public drinking-water supply wells are open or screened. Two types of assessments were made: (1) a status assessment that described the current quality of the groundwater resource, and (2) an evaluation of relations between groundwater quality and potential explanatory factors that represent characteristics of the primary aquifer system. The assessments characterize untreated groundwater quality, rather than the quality of treated drinking water delivered to consumers by water distributors.

The status assessment was based on water-quality data collected by the U.S. Geological Survey from 83 wells in the SNR study unit in 2008 and from 117 wells in 3 small study units within the SNR study unit in 2006–07 and on water-quality data compiled in the State’s database for 1,066 wells sampled in 2006–08. To provide some context for the results, water-quality data were converted to relative-concentrations (RCs), which are the sample concentrations divided by the concentrations of Federal or California regulatory and non-regulatory benchmarks for drinking-water quality. RCs for inorganic constituents (major ions, trace elements, nutrients, and radioactive constituents) were classified as “high” (RC > 1.0, indicating that concentration is above the benchmark), “moderate” (1.0 ≥ RC > 0.5), or “low” (RC ≤ 0.5). For organic constituents (volatile organic compounds and pesticides) and special-interest constituents (perchlorate and N-nitrosodimethylamine [NDMA]), the boundary between moderate and low RCs was set at 0.1. All benchmarks used for organic constituents were health-based, whereas health-based and aesthetic-based benchmarks were used for inorganic constituents.

The primary metric used for quantifying regional-scale groundwater quality was “aquifer-scale proportion.” Aquifer-scale proportions were calculated as the areal percentages of the primary aquifer system having high, moderate, and low RCs for a given constituent or class of constituents. The SNR study unit area was classified into four aquifer lithologic types—granitic rocks, metamorphic rocks, sedimentary deposits, and volcanic rocks—and aquifer-scale proportions were calculated on an area-weighted basis for each of the four aquifer lithologies and for the study unit as a whole (aggregated system).

The results of the status assessment indicated that inorganic constituents were present at high and moderate RCs in greater proportions in the SNR study unit aggregated primary aquifer system than were organic constituents and that there were significant differences (p < 0.05) between the four aquifer lithologies. One or more inorganic constituents with health-based benchmarks were present at high RCs in 16 percent of the aggregated primary aquifer system and at moderate RCs in 21 percent. Arsenic (9.7 percent), uranium (2.9 percent), boron (2.0 percent), fluoride (1.8 percent), and nitrate (1.4 percent) were the constituents most commonly present at high RCs.

For inorganic constituents with aesthetic-based benchmarks, 18 percent of the aggregated primary aquifer system had high RCs of one or more constituent, and 6.8 percent had moderate RCs. Iron (15.8 percent), manganese (15.1 percent), and total dissolved solids (1.3 percent) were the constituents most commonly present at high RCs.

Organic constituents were not detected in 72 percent of the primary aquifer system. One or more organic constituents had high RCs in 0.1 percent of the primary aquifer system, moderate RCs in 3.0 percent, and low RCs in 25 percent. Proportions of the four lithologic primary aquifer systems with high or moderate concentrations of organic constituents were not significantly different. Three organic constituents had area-weighted detection frequencies greater than 10 percent in the primary aquifer system as a whole or at least one of the four lithologic primary aquifer systems: the gasoline oxygenate methyl tert-butyl ether, the trihalomethane chloroform, and the herbicide simazine. The special-interest constituent perchlorate was detected at high RCs in 0.01 percent of the primary aquifer system and at moderate RCs in 1.0 percent, and detection frequencies could be accounted for by the distribution of perchlorate under natural conditions.

Statistical tests were used to evaluate relations between constituent concentrations and potential explanatory factors descriptive of land use, geography, depth, geochemical conditions, and groundwater age. Higher concentrations of trace elements, radioactive constituents, and constituents with aesthetic-based benchmarks generally were associated with anoxic conditions, higher pH, and location within a particular compositional band in the Sierra Nevada batholith corresponding to the southwestern part of the study unit. High concentrations of organic constituents generally were associated with greater proportions of urban land use. No significant relations were observed between the concentrations of organic constituents and measures of well depth or groundwater age, perhaps because of the high proportions of springs and modern groundwater in the dataset.

First posted December 23, 2014

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:

Fram, M.S., and Belitz, Kenneth, 2014, Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the Sierra Nevada Regional study unit, 2008—California GAMA Priority Basin Project: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2014–5174, 118 p.,

ISSN 2328-031X (print)

ISSN 2328-0328 (online)




Hydrogeologic Setting of the SNR Study Unit


Status and Understanding of Groundwater Quality




Appendix A. Lithologic-Grid Wells

Appendix B. Attribution of Ancillary Data

Appendix C. Effect of Data Gaps on Aquifer-Scale Proportions for Inorganic Constituents

Appendix D. Radioactivity

Appendix E. Comparison of Major-Ion Data

Appendix F. Additional Water-Quality Data

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