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Water Quality of groundwater used for public supply in principal aquifers of the western United States

September 8, 2020

Groundwater provides nearly half of the Nation’s drinking water. As the Nation’s population grows, the importance of (and need for) high-quality drinking-water supplies increases. As part of a national-scale effort to assess groundwater quality in principal aquifers (PAs) that supply most of the groundwater used for public supply, the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Project staff sampled six principal aquifers in the western United States between 2013 and 2017: (1) the Basin and Range carbonate-rock aquifers, (2) Basin and Range basin-fill aquifers, (3) Rio Grande aquifer system, (4) High Plains aquifer, (5) Colorado Plateaus aquifers, and (6) Columbia Plateau basaltic-rock aquifers. These six PAs supply a large part of the Nation’s drinking water and cover a large geographic extent of the western conterminous United States. Groundwater samples were analyzed for a large suite of water-quality constituents including major ions, nutrients, trace elements, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticide compounds, radioactive constituents, age tracers, and, in selected PAs, perchlorate. Two types of assessments were made: (1) a status assessment that describes the quality of the groundwater resource at time of collection and (2) an understanding assessment that evaluates relations between groundwater quality and potential explanatory factors that represent characteristics of the aquifer system. The assessments characterize untreated groundwater quality, which might be different than the quality of drinking water delivered to consumers. The assessments are based on water-quality data collected from 352 wells and 6 springs using an equal-area grid sampling design. This sampling approach allows for the estimation of the proportion of high, moderate, or low concentrations relative to federal water-quality benchmarks of selected constituents in the area of each PA. Results were compared to established benchmarks for drinking-water quality to provide context for evaluating the quality of untreated groundwater: Federal regulatory benchmarks for protecting human health, non-regulatory human-health benchmarks, and non-regulatory benchmarks for nuisance chemicals. Not all constituents that were analyzed have benchmarks and thus were not considered for assessments. Concentrations are characterized as high if they are greater than their benchmark. Concentrations are considered moderate if they are greater than one-half their benchmark (for inorganic constituents), or greater than one-tenth their benchmark (for organic constituents). Concentrations are considered low if they are less than moderate or the constituent was not detected. 

Status assessment results indicated that inorganic constituents more commonly occurred at high and moderate concentrations in the six PAs than organic constituents, and organic constituents predominately occurred at low concentrations. Inorganic constituents that exceeded health-based benchmarks (high concentrations) were present in all six PAs; aquifer-scale proportion were 30 percent in the Rio Grande aquifer system, 22 percent in the Basin and Range basin-fill aquifers, 20 percent in the Basin and Range carbonate-rock aquifers, 19 percent in the High Plains aquifer, 16 percent in the Colorado Plateaus aquifers, and 8 percent in the Columbia Plateau basaltic-rock aquifers. Arsenic, fluoride, manganese, and total dissolved solids were the constituents most commonly present at high concentrations. Organic constituents with human-health benchmarks (pesticide compounds and VOCs) did not occur at high concentrations and moderate concentrations were infrequent; aquifer-scale proportions ranged from 0 to 5 percent. Detections of organic compounds at low concentrations, however, occurred in all six PAs, with detection frequencies ranging from 10 to 26 percent for pesticide compounds and from 10 to 46 percent for VOCs. Specific organic constituents with detection frequencies greater than 10 percent were four herbicides (atrazine, didealkylatrazine, bromoform, and propazine), one insecticide (propoxur), and two VOCs (the trihalomethanes chloroform and bromodichloromethane). Where collected—in the Rio Grande aquifer system and High Plains aquifer—perchlorate did not occur at high concentrations; moderate aquifer-scale proportions were 3 and 11 percent, respectively. 

The understanding assessment included statistical tests to evaluate relations between constituent concentrations and potential explanatory factors to identify natural and human factors that affect groundwater quality. Potential explanatory factors included depth to bottom of well perforation, groundwater age category, land use, aquifer lithology, hydrologic conditions, and geochemical conditions. Higher concentrations of trace elements, radioactive constituents, and constituents with non-health-based benchmarks generally were associated with unconsolidated sand and gravel aquifer lithologies, premodern groundwater age, greater aridity, and more alkaline pH. Organic constituents with detection frequencies greater than 10 percent generally were associated with urban land use, shallower well depths, and higher total dissolved solids concentrations. The results for the six western PAs provide important insights into the quality of groundwater that is used for drinking water in the western United States, as well as natural and human factors that affect groundwater quality in this region.

Publication Year 2020
Title Water Quality of groundwater used for public supply in principal aquifers of the western United States
DOI 10.3133/sir20205078
Authors Celia Z. Rosecrans, MaryLynn Musgrove
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5078
Index ID sir20205078
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center