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Ground-water hydrology of the Willamette basin, Oregon

November 25, 2005

The Willamette Basin encompasses a drainage of 12,000 square miles and is home to approximately 70 percent of Oregon's population. Agriculture and population are concentrated in the lowland, a broad, relatively flat area between the Coast and Cascade Ranges. Annual rainfall is high, with about 80 percent of precipitation falling from October through March and less than 5 percent falling in July and August, the peak growing season. Population growth and an increase in cultivation of crops needing irrigation have produced a growing seasonal demand for water. Because many streams are administratively closed to new appropriations in summer, ground water is the most likely source for meeting future water demand. This report describes the current understanding of the regional ground-water flow system, and addresses the effects of ground-water development.

This study defines seven regional hydrogeologic units in the Willamette Basin. The highly permeable High Cascade unit consists of young volcanic material found at the surface along the crest of the Cascade Range. Four sedimentary hydrogeologic units fill the lowland between the Cascade and Coast Ranges. Young, highly permeable coarse-grained sediments of the upper sedimentary unit have a limited extent in the floodplains of the major streams and in part of the Portland Basin. Extending over much of the lowland where the upper sedimentary unit does not occur, silts and clays of the Willamette silt unit act as a confining unit. The middle sedimentary unit, consisting of permeable coarse-grained material, occurs beneath the Willamette silt and upper sedimentary units and at the surface as terraces in the lowland. Beneath these units is the lower sedimentary unit, which consists of predominantly fine-grained sediments. In the northern part of the basin, lavas of the Columbia River basalt unit occur at the surface in uplands and beneath the basin-fill sedimentary units. The Columbia River basalt unit contains multiple productive water-bearing zones. A basement confining unit of older marine and volcanic rocks of low permeability underlies the basin and occurs at land surface in the Coast Range and western part of the Cascade Range.

Most recharge in the basin is from infiltration of precipitation, and the spatial distribution of recharge mimics the distribution of precipitation, which increases with elevation. Basinwide annual mean recharge is estimated to be 22 inches. Rain and snowmelt easily recharge into the permeable High Cascade unit and discharge within the High Cascade area. Most recharge in the Coast Range and western part of the Cascade Range follows short flowpaths through the upper part of the low permeability material and discharges to streams within the mountains. Consequently, recharge in the Coast and Ranges is not available as lateral ground-water flow into the lowland, where most ground-water use occurs. Within the lowland, annual mean recharge is 16 inches and most recharge occurs from November to April, when rainfall is large and evapotranspiration is small. From May to October recharge is negligible because precipitation is small and evapotranspiration is large.

Discharge of ground water is mainly to streams. Ground-water discharge is a relatively large component of flow in streams that drain the High Cascade unit and parts of the Portland Basin where permeable units are at the surface. In streams that do not head in the High Cascade area, streamflow is generally dominated by runoff of precipitation. Ground-water in the permeable units in the lowland discharges to the major streams where there is a good hydraulic connection between aquifers and streams. Ground-water discharge to smaller streams, which flow on the less permeable Willamette silt unit, is small and mostly from the Willamette silt unit. Most ground-water withdrawals occur within the lowland. Irrigation is the largest use of ground water, accounting for 240,000 acre feet of withdrawals, or 81 p

Publication Year 2005
Title Ground-water hydrology of the Willamette basin, Oregon
DOI 10.3133/sir20055168
Authors Terrence D. Conlon, Karl C. Wozniak, Douglas Woodcock, Nora B. Herrera, Bruce J. Fisher, David S. Morgan, Karl K. Lee, Stephen R. Hinkle
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2005-5168
Index ID sir20055168
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Oregon Water Science Center