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Characterization and occurrence of confined and unconfined aquifers in Quaternary sediments in the glaciated conterminous United States

December 13, 2018

The glacial aquifer system, which is a collection of aquifers within Quaternary sediments in the glaciated conterminous United States, is a principal aquifer that supplies groundwater that serves about 42 million people and accounts for about 5 percent of the Nation’s drinking water. This aquifer system (the area of maximum glacial advance) underlies parts of 25 States and covers 1.87×106 square kilometers. A hydrogeologic framework is presented that divides the glaciated United States into 17 distinct hydrogeologic terranes using a geologic approach based on previous mapping. Each hydrogeologic terrane contains Quaternary sediment that is derived from a common depositional history and can be characterized by similar texture and thickness. Characteristics of Quaternary sediments are described using attributes computed from a lithologic database of well logs compiled from 24 States (excluding Kentucky). The hydrogeologic framework presents a nationwide picture of the glacial aquifer system and provides generalizations concerning the nature of aquifers within it (for example, whether the aquifers are shallow or deep, and unconfined or confined). In this way insights can be gained from understanding the similarities and differences in distinct parts of the glacial aquifer system and how they relate to water use and quality and to aquifer vulnerability.

Delineation of hydrogeologic terranes was based on an interpretation of existing geologic mapping of Quaternary sediments and the thickness of unconsolidated material. Overall thickness of Quaternary sediment was used to qualitatively rank the generalized complexity of the hydrogeologic framework in each terrane: “lower” complexity (assigned a terrane code 1), “moderate” complexity (terrane code 2), and “higher” complexity (terrane code 3). Letter designations appended to the terrane codes (for example, 1A, 1B, or 1C) differentiate terranes of similar complexity. Two unique areas, where thick, stratified, coarse-grained sediment dominates, were assigned terrane code 4.

Elements of this hydrogeologic framework include a glacial environments and surficial sediments geodatabase, which includes lithologic, geomorphic, and stratigraphic characterization of Quaternary sediments based on previous mapping; a gridded database of sediment and aquifer characteristics computed from lithologic logs obtained from water-well driller records; a water-use database with information on public-water supply systems and sources of groundwater; and estimated recharge computed from a geologically based soil-water balance model. A generalized map of the bedrock geology based on previous State-level mapping is included as well.

Quaternary sediment in the glaciated United States includes glacial, postglacial (Holocene) and nonglacial sediments. At land surface, 60 percent of the glacial sediment is till. Large areas of outwash and ice contact sediments are extensive throughout the Midwest but generally are confined to valleys in the Northeast and the Northwest. Lacustrine sediments were deposited in proglacial lakes adjacent to the present Great Lakes and in glacial Lake Agassiz in the eastern Dakotas and northwestern Minnesota. The median thickness of Quaternary sediment ranges from 6 to 45 meters across the 17 hydrogeologic terranes, but the maximum thickness is more than 500 meters in some areas. Quaternary sediments generally contain less than 10 percent coarse material; the median range is near zero percent under till to about 50 percent under ice contact and outwash sediments. About 80 percent of the coarse material lies within 25 to 40 meters of land surface.

In most of the glaciated United States, there is a small likelihood of penetrating an aquifer-material interval containing coarse material at least 3 meters thick. A single aquifer-material interval was recorded in about 44 percent of lithologic logs, whereas about 11 percent of the logs penetrated multiple intervals. About 44 percent of water wells in the lithologic database are completed in Quaternary sediment, and many of these Quaternary water wells (42 percent) are confined by at least 7.5 meters of fine materials. About 33 percent of these Quaternary water wells are unconfined—the remainder are where only thin layers (less than 3 meters) of coarse material are present. The median depths of Quaternary water wells range from 13 to 40 meters among the 17 hydrogeologic terranes.

Recharge ranges from more than 400 millimeters per year in the Northeast to 11 millimeters or less per year in the Dakotas and Montana (median value of 136 millimeters per year). Annual groundwater withdrawals compiled by county range on an areal basis from less than 1 to 370 millimeters per year, and the mean is 7.4 millimeters per year. About 36 percent of the withdrawals are for public-water supply, of which 70 percent are derived from Quaternary sediments. Groundwater withdrawals are less than 10 percent of recharge throughout most of the glaciated conterminous United States but are a larger proportion of recharge near urban areas in the Northeast and the Midwest, and in counties throughout drier parts of the Midwest.

The salient characteristics of the 17 hydrogeologic terranes are presented through maps and a set of descriptive plots to facilitate visual comparisons between selected sediment and aquifer characteristics. The thickness of Quaternary sediment generally increases from the lower complexity terranes through the higher complexity terranes, consistent with their delineation. Median proportions of coarse material in Quaternary sediment and depths to aquifer-material intervals are highly variable (less than 10 to 50 percent, and 0 to 30 meters, respectively). Median thicknesses of aquifer-material intervals generally fall within a narrow range (10 to 20 meters), except in two terranes that contain thick coarse-grained sediment (30 to 35 meters). The source of water in wells varies from mostly bedrock wells in the lower complexity terranes to mostly Quaternary wells in the higher complexity terranes where the sediment is thickest. A tree diagram compiled from a hierarchical cluster analysis of a matrix composed of metrics based on sediment and aquifer characteristics, and the distribution of water wells in each terrane, indicates some groups of terranes that can be treated as comparable when analyzing groundwater flow and quality.

Aquifer-material intervals indicated on maps prepared from the lithologic logs, including unconfined and confined conditions, correlate well with aquifer systems delineated on state maps for Illinois, Indiana, and North Dakota. The large scale of the study limits the resolution at which the maps can be interpreted, however, and alluvial units are not mapped correctly for some valleys in the Northeast and the Northwest. Lithologic logs used in the study are biased toward shallow depths because not all logs penetrate the entire thickness of Quaternary sediment, but this bias should not limit the utility of the sediment and aquifer descriptions because shallow depths are commonly exploited for water supply. The hydrogeologic framework will support ongoing studies of groundwater flow and quality in the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Assessment program for the glaciated United States.

Publication Year 2019
Title Characterization and occurrence of confined and unconfined aquifers in Quaternary sediments in the glaciated conterminous United States
DOI 10.3133/sir20185091
Authors Richard M. Yager, Leon J. Kauffman, David R. Soller, Adel E. Haj, Paul M. Heisig, Cheryl A. Buchwald, Stephen, M. Westenbroek, James E. Reddy
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5091
Index ID sir20185091
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization National Water Quality Assessment Program