Evaluation of the Source and Transport of High Nitrate Concentrations in Ground Water, Warren Subbasin, California

By Tracy Nishikawa, Jill N. Densmore, Peter Martin, and Jonathan Matti



Water–Resources Investigations Report 03-4009

Sacramento, California 2003


Revised September 18, 2018

Posted June 6, 2003

Prepared in cooperation with the Hi-Desert Water District and the
Mojave Water Agency

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Ground water historically has been the sole source of water supply for the Town of Yucca Valley in the Warren subbasin of the Morongo ground-water basin, California. An imbalance between ground-water recharge and pumpage caused ground-water levels in the subbasin to decline by as much as 300 feet from the late 1940s through 1994. In response, the local water district, Hi-Desert Water District, instituted an artificial recharge program in February 1995 using imported surface water to replenish the ground water. The artificial recharge program resulted in water-level recoveries of as much as 250 feet in the vicinity of the recharge ponds between February 1995 and December 2001; however, nitrate concentrations in some wells also increased from a background concentration of 10 milligrams per liter to more than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 44 milligrams per liter (10 milligrams per liter as nitrogen).

The objectives of this study were to: (1) evaluate the sources of the high-nitrate concentrations that occurred after the start of the artificial-recharge program, (2) develop a ground-water flow and solute-transport model to better understand the source and transport of nitrates in the aquifer system, and (3) utilize the calibrated models to evaluate the possible effect of a proposed conjunctive-use project. These objectives were accomplished by collecting water-level and water-quality data for the subbasin and assessing changes that have occurred since artificial recharge began. Collected data were used to calibrate the ground-water flow and solute-transport models.

Data collected for this study indicate that the areal extent of the water-bearing deposits is much smaller (about 5.5 square miles versus 19 square miles) than that of the subbasin. These water-bearing deposits are referred to in this report as the Warren ground-water basin. Faults separate the ground-water basin into five hydrogeologic units: the west, the midwest, the mideast, the east and the northeast hydrogeologic units.

Water-quality analyses indicate that septage from septic tanks is the primary source of the high-nitrate concentrations measured in the Warren ground-water basin. Water-quality and stable-isotope data, collected after the start of the artificial recharge program, indicate that mixing occurs between imported water and native ground water, with the highest recorded nitrate concentrations in the midwest and the mideast hydrogeologic units. In general, the timing of the increase in measured nitrate concentrations in the midwest hydrogeologic unit is directly related to the distance of the monitoring well from a recharge site, indicating that the increase in nitrate concentrations is related to the artificial recharge program. Nitrate-to-chloride and nitrogen-isotope data indicate that septage is the source of the measured increase in nitrate concentrations in the midwest and the mideast hydrogeologic units. Samples from four wells in the Warren ground-water basin were analyzed for caffeine and selected human pharmaceutical products; these analyses suggest that septage is reaching the water table.

There are two possible conceptual models that explain how high-nitrate septage reaches the water table: (1) the continued downward migration of septage through the unsaturated zone to the water table and (2) rising water levels, a result of the artificial recharge program, entraining septage in the unsaturated zone. The observations that nitrate concentrations increase in ground-water samples from wells soon after the start of the artificial recharge program in 1995 and that the largest increase in nitrate concentrations occur in the midwest and mideast hydrogeologic units where the largest increase in water levels occur indicate the validity of the second conceptual model (rising water levels). The potential nitrate concentration resulting from a water-level rise in the midwest and mideast hydrogeologic units was estimated using a simple mixing-cell model. The estimated value is within the range of concentrations measured in samples from wells, further indicating the validity of the second conceptual model.

A ground-water flow model and a solute-transport model were developed for the Warren ground-water basin for the period 1956-2001. MODFLOW-96 was used for the ground-water flow model and MOC3D was used for the solute-transport model. The model cell size is about 500 feet by 500 feet and the models were discretized vertically into three layers. The models were calibrated using a trial-and-error approach using water-level and nitrate-concentration data collected between 1956-2001. In order to better match the measured data, low fault hydraulic characteristic values were required, thereby compartmentalizing the ground-water basin. In addition, it was necessary to parameterize the specific yield distribution for the top model layer where unconfined ground-water conditions occur into three homogeneous zones. Separate sets of specific- yield values were needed to simulate the drawdown and subsequent water-level recovery. In addition, the calibrated natural recharge was about 83 acre-feet per year. The entrainment of unsaturated-zone septage was simulated as recharge having an associated nitrate concentration. The volume of recharge was a function of the measured water-level rise between 1994-98 and the moisture content of the unsaturated zone. The nitrate concentration of the recharge water was a weighted function of the assumed nitrate concentration in the infiltrating water associated with the overlying land use. The simulated hydraulic head and nitrate concentration results were in good agreement with the measured data indicating that the mechanism for the increase in nitrate concentrations was rising water levels entraining high-nitrate septage in the unsaturated-zone.

The calibrated models were used to simulate the possible effects of a planned conjunctive-use project in the western part of the ground-water basin. The simulated project included the addition of a new recharge pond and a new extraction well. In addition, recharge at two existing recharge ponds was increased and three existing production wells were pumped, treated in a nitrate-removal facility, and used for water supply. The simulated hydraulic heads increased in the west, the mideast, and parts of the east hydrogeologic units; however, the simulated hydraulic heads decreased in the midwest and northeast hydrogeologic units. The simulated nitrate concentrations increased to above the MCL of 44 milligrams per liter (10 milligrams per liter as nitrogen) in parts of the west as a result of the increase in simulated hydraulic head. The simulated nitrate concentrations decreased in part of the midwest hydrogeologic unit as a result of the artificial recharge and pumping from the nitrate-removal wells. The simulated nitrate concentrations increased to above the MCL of 44 milligrams per liter in part of the mideast and parts of the east hydrogeologic units beneath commercial land-use areas.


Summary of Major Findings

Ground-Water Quality Highlights

Ground-Water Flow and Solute-Transport Model Highlights



Purpose and Scope

General Description of Study Area

Multiple-Well Monitoring Sites




Stratigraphic Units

Depth to Basement Complex

Faults and Ground-Water Barriers

Definition of the Aquifer System

Natural Recharge and Discharge

Ground-Water Development and Artificial Recharge

Ground-Water Levels and Movement

Nitrate in Ground Water

Areal Distribution of Nitrate

Distribution of Nitrates Prior to Artificial Recharge

Distribution of Nitrates After Artificial Recharge Started

1998 Conditions

2001 Conditions

Potential Sources of Nitrate

Natural Soil Nitrate

Nitrates from Septic Tanks

Nitrates from Irrigation-Return Flow

Identification of Nitrate Source

General Chemical Characteristics

Temporal Changes in Nitrate Concentration

Hi-Desert Water District Production Wells

Multiple-Well Monitoring Sites

Nitrate-to-Chloride Ratios

Stable Isotopes of Oxygen and Hydrogen

Background Information


Nitrogen Isotopes

Dissolved Organic Carbon and Fluorescence

Caffeine and Pharmaceutical Analyses

Conceptual Model of Nitrate Transport

Ground-Water Flow and Solute-Transport Models



Model Discretization

Spatial Discretization

Temporal Discretization

Model Boundaries

Subsurface Properties

Ground-Water Flow Properties

Hydraulic Conductivity and Transmissivity

Storage Coefficient and Specific Yield

Vertical Conductance


Solute-Transport Properties

Model Recharge

Natural Recharge

Artificial Recharge

Model Discharge


Ground-Water Underflow

Model Calibration

Ground-Water Flow Model

Simulated Fluxes

Simulated Hydraulic Heads

Model Fit

Solute-Transport Model

Sensitivity Analysis

Proposed Conjunctive-Use Project




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Water Resources of California
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