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Nutrient chemistry in the Elizabeth Lake subwatershed—Effects of onsite wastewater treatment systems on groundwater and lake water quality, Los Angeles County, California

April 16, 2024

Nutrient (nitrogen [N] and phosphorus [P] chemistry) downgradient from onsite wastewater treatment system (OWTS) was evaluated with a groundwater study in the area surrounding Elizabeth Lake, the largest of three sag lakes within the Santa Clara River watershed of Los Angeles County, California.

Elizabeth Lake is listed on the “303 (d) Impaired Waters List” for excess nutrients and is downgradient from more than 600 OWTS. The primary objective of this study was to develop a conceptual hydrogeological model to determine if discharge from OWTS is transported into shallow groundwater within the Elizabeth Lake subwatershed and contributes nutrients to Elizabeth Lake in excess of the total maximum daily load limit. An analysis of historical data and data collected for this study provided estimates of aquifer properties, such as hydraulic gradients and other parameters necessary to estimate boundary conditions. Electrical resistivity tomography (ERT) surveys were done to determine the best monitoring well locations and to estimate depth to groundwater. During 4 separate sampling events, 11 wells, 2 imported water tanks, 1 spring (sampled on March 17, 2019), and Elizabeth Lake were sampled, which occurred during February–September 2020.

ERT transects and borehole geophysical measurements indicated that there were low to high resistivity materials in the subsurface and potential perched fresh water. Most of the aquifer material was characterized as sandy silt, occasionally with mixed clays and medium gravels, and was estimated to have a hydraulic conductivity from 3.28x10−3 to 16.4 feet per day, a porosity from 0.34 to 0.42, and a hydraulic gradient from 0.01 to 0.03. Although bedrock was not obvious in ERT transects, all well depths were terminated at depths of an impassible confining layer observed to be a highly consolidated blue-gray clay. Depths to granitic bedrock, based on road outcrops and lithologic driller logs, varied throughout the study area. Depth to the bedrock was estimated to be shallow on the north side of Elizabeth Lake at approximately 30 feet below land surface (ft bls). Depth to bedrock is at 50 ft bls toward the east of the Elizabeth Lake subwatershed, which is at topographic ground surface to the north and south of the residential development. Groundwater levels ranged from approximately 0 to 12 ft bls during this study. Historical water levels ranged from 8 to 16 ft bls in the lower elevation of the study area and increased to depths of as much as 80 ft bls at higher elevations on the north and south boundaries of the Elizabeth Lake subwatershed.

Water-quality samples were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, stable isotopes, and age-dating tracers. A principal component analysis was completed to determine organic matter sources. The proportion of recharge from imported waters, used for domestic consumption, was calculated using stable water isotopes, deuterium (δD) and oxygen (δ18O). Recharge from imported waters accounted for approximately 15–71 percent of the total recharge to groundwater within the study area. Total nitrogen concentrations ranged from 0.17 to 30.9 milligrams per liter (mg/L) as N, and phosphorus, measured in the soluble form as orthophosphate, ranged from 0.03 to 0.35 mg/L as P. Nitrate concentrations in groundwater samples ranged from less than the detection limit (0.01 mg/L as N) to approximately 24 mg/L as N. Nitrate was not detected in 3 of the 12 sites sampled during the study (2 wells and Elizabeth Lake). Dissolved organic carbon concentrations ranged from 0.4 to 27 mg/L in groundwater and from 9.9 to 100 mg/L in Elizabeth Lake. Ammonium and orthophosphate concentrations generally were low in groundwater. However, elevated concentrations of ammonium in Elizabeth Lake were assumed to be due to avian waste products or biological nitrogen fixation. Groundwater ages were mostly modern (recharged since 1952), with a median recharge temperature of 13 degrees Celsius.

Redox conditions in groundwater indicated the likely occurrence of nitrate attenuation by denitrification downgradient from the wells to the south of Elizabeth Lake before groundwater discharges to the lake. Undetectable nitrate in Elizabeth Lake at the time of sampling was likely due to algal uptake. Most wells contained stable isotopes of nitrogen and oxygen in nitrate (δ15N-NO3 and δ18O-NO3) molecules with values consistent with denitrification. However, one monitoring well on the north of Elizabeth Lake (ELLA-8) had no evidence of denitrification, based on elevated concentrations of nitrate and a sufficient amount of dissolved oxygen such that the water was oxic and not favorable for the denitrification reaction. Consequently, this nitrate could be delivered to Elizabeth Lake through groundwater discharge if nitrate is not removed from the system by denitrifying bacteria downgradient from the well before the groundwater discharges into Elizabeth Lake. The principal component analysis demonstrated that dissolved organic matter optical properties track different sources of dissolved organic matter from decayed plants, animals, and animal-derived wastes. Two wells contained strong indicators of OWTS water presence, although geochemical evidence indicated other wells may also be affected by OWTS discharge.

Publication Year 2024
Title Nutrient chemistry in the Elizabeth Lake subwatershed—Effects of onsite wastewater treatment systems on groundwater and lake water quality, Los Angeles County, California
DOI 10.3133/sir20245012
Authors Adelia M McGregor, Joseph L. Domagalski, Krishangi D. Groover, Angela M. Hansen, Anthony A. Brown
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2024-5012
Index ID sir20245012
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center