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Hydrogeologic framework of the Virginia Eastern Shore

December 5, 2019

The Yorktown-Eastover aquifer system of the Virginia Eastern Shore consists of upper, middle, and lower confined aquifers overlain by correspondingly named confining units and underlain by the Saint Marys confining unit. Miocene- to Pliocene-age marine-shelf sediments observed in 205 boreholes include medium- to coarse-grained sand and shells that compose the aquifers and fine-grained sand, silt, and clay that compose the confining units. The upper confining unit also includes fine-grained and organic-rich back-barrier and estuarine sediments of Pleistocene age. An overlying surficial aquifer is composed mostly of Pleistocene-age nearshore sand and gravel with smaller amounts of cobbles and boulders.

In addition, Pleistocene-age sediments that fill three buried paleochannels are for the first time explicitly delineated here as distinct hydrogeologic units. Two aquifers are composed of medium- to coarse-grained fluvial sand and gravel, and an intervening confining unit is composed of fine-grained estuarine sand, silt, clay, and organic material. Aquifer and confining-unit sediments are also mixed with reworked marine-shelf sediments eroded from the sides of the paleochannels.

Hydrogeologic units of the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer system generally dip eastward, are as much as several tens of feet thick, and have an undulating configuration possibly resulting from the underlying Chesapeake Bay impact crater. Aquifers and confining units are incised by the three paleochannels along an upward-widening and eastward-lengthening series of structural “windows.” Hydrogeologic units within mainstems and branching tributaries of the paleochannels dip southeastward parallel to slopes of the paleochannels, are as much as several tens of feet thick, and laterally abut the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer system along paleochannel sidewalls. The Yorktown-Eastover aquifer system is thereby hydraulically breached by the paleochannels to alternately create barriers to or conduits for groundwater flow.

Results of previously documented aquifer tests at 58 wells indicate that transmissivity is generally greatest in young, shallow, and coarse-grained nearshore and fluvial sediments of the surficial aquifer and paleochannels. Transmissivity progressively decreases with depth in older, deeper, and finer grained marine-shelf sediments of the Yorktown-Eastover aquifer system, probably because they have undergone compaction as a result of greater overburden pressure over longer periods of time.

Compiled chloride concentrations in samples from 330 wells generally increase downward, with most of the samples collected at altitudes above −300 feet and with most concentrations less than 250 milligrams per liter. The saltwater-transition zone has a broad trough-like shape aligned with the peninsula, being relatively shallow along the coastline and deeper along the central “spine.” Because movement of the saltwater is slow, the configuration largely reflects groundwater flow prior to widespread groundwater withdrawals. Fresh groundwater has leaked downward along deep parts of the saltwater-transition zone and leaked upward along shallower parts to discharge at the coast.

The saltwater-transition zone also exhibits an anomalous ridge across the center of the peninsula. Groundwater levels indicate that the saltwater ridge formed primarily by the Exmore paleochannel acting as a large lateral collector drain. Groundwater levels were lowered, and the position of saltwater-transition zone was elevated, by a flow conduit that intercepted groundwater that otherwise would have flowed toward and discharged along the coastline.

Nearly all freshwater on the Virginia Eastern Shore is supplied by groundwater withdrawals, which have lowered water levels, altered hydraulic gradients, and created a concern for saltwater intrusion. Previous characterizations of groundwater conditions that are relied on to manage groundwater development have been limited by a lack of hydrogeologic information, particularly data on buried paleochannels that are critical to safeguarding the groundwater supply. Using recently available expanded information, the U.S. Geological Survey undertook a study in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality during 2016–19 to develop an improved description of the groundwater system called a “hydrogeologic framework.”

The hydrogeologic framework can aid water-supply planning and development by providing information on broad trends in aquifer configurations, hydraulic properties, and proximity to saltwater to avoid chloride contamination. Digital models to evaluate effects of groundwater withdrawals can also be improved with expanded data and capabilities to evaluate paleochannel hydraulic connections and the potential for saltwater movement.

The hydrogeologic framework is limited by the nonuniform distribution of boreholes and the subjective delineation of aquifers and confining units, including those within paleochannels that are regarded as preliminary. The configuration of the saltwater-transition zone is also regarded as preliminary because of the nonuniform distribution of groundwater samples. Low well-sampling frequency precludes characterizing movement of the saltwater-transition zone. A monitoring strategy of sampling and possibly electromagnetic-induction well logging could be used to detect saltwater movement.

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