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Sediment distribution and hydrologic conditions of the Potomac aquifer in Virginia and parts of Maryland and North Carolina

September 11, 2013

Sediments of the heavily used Potomac aquifer broadly contrast across major structural features of the Atlantic Coastal Plain Physiographic Province in eastern Virginia and adjacent parts of Maryland and North Carolina. Thicknesses and relative dominance of the highly interbedded fluvial sediments vary regionally. Vertical intervals in boreholes of coarse-grained sediment commonly targeted for completion of water-supply wells are thickest and most widespread across the central and southern parts of the Virginia Coastal Plain. Designated as the Norfolk arch depositional subarea, the entire sediment thickness here functions hydraulically as a single interconnected aquifer. By contrast, coarse-grained sediment intervals are thinner and less widespread across the northern part of the Virginia Coastal Plain and into southern Maryland, designated as the Salisbury embayment depositional subarea. Fine-grained intervals that are generally avoided for completion of water-supply wells are increasingly thick and widespread northward. Fine-grained intervals collectively as thick as several hundred feet comprise two continuous confining units that hydraulically separate three vertically spaced subaquifers. The subaquifers are continuous northward but merge southward into the single undivided Potomac aquifer. Lastly, far southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina are designated as the Albemarle embayment depositional subarea, where both coarse- and fine-grained intervals are of only moderate thickness. The entire sediment thickness functions hydraulically as a single interconnected aquifer. A substantial hydrologic separation from overlying aquifers is imposed by the upper Cenomanian confining unit.

Potomac aquifer sediments were deposited by a fluvial depositional complex spanning the Virginia Coastal Plain approximately 100 to 145 million years ago. Westward, persistently uplifted granite and gneiss source rocks sustained a supply of coarse-grained sand and gravel. Immature, high-gradient braided streams deposited longitudinal bars and channel fills across the Norfolk arch subarea. By contrast, across the Salisbury and Albemarle embayment subareas, mature, medium- to low-gradient meandering streams deposited medium- to coarse-grained channel fills and point bars segregated from fine-grained overbank deposits. The Virginia depositional complex merged northward across the Salisbury embayment subarea with another complex in Maryland. Here, additional sediments were received from schist source rocks that underwent three cycles of initial uplift and rapid erosion followed by crustal stability and erosional leveling.

Because of the predominance of coarse-grained sediments, transmissivity, hydraulic conductivity, and regional velocities of lateral flow through the Potomac aquifer are greatest across the Norfolk arch depositional subarea, but decrease progressively northward with increasingly fine-grained sediments. Confining units hydraulically separate the Potomac aquifer from overlying aquifers, as indicated by large vertical hydraulic gradients. By contrast, most of the Potomac aquifer internally functions hydraulically as a single interconnected aquifer, as indicated by uniformly small vertical gradients. Most fine-grained sediments within the aquifer do not hydraulically separate overlying and underlying coarse-grained sediments. Across the Salisbury embayment depositional subarea, however, hydraulic separation among the vertically spaced subaquifers is imposed by the intervening confining units.

The Potomac aquifer is the largest and most heavily used source of groundwater in the Virginia Coastal Plain. Water-level declines as great as 200 feet create the potential for saltwater intrusion. Conventional stratigraphic correlation has been generally ineffective at accurately characterizing complexly distributed fluvial sediments that compose the Potomac aquifer. Consequently, the aquifer’s internal hydraulic connectivity and overall hydrologic function have not been well understood. Water-supply planning and development efforts have been hampered, and interpretations of regulatory criteria for allowable water-level declines have been ambiguous.

An investigation undertaken during 2010–11 by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, provides a comprehensive regional description of the spatial distribution of Potomac aquifer sediments and their relation to hydrologic conditions. Altitudes and thicknesses of 2,725 vertical sediment intervals represent the spatial distribution of Potomac aquifer sediments in the Virginia Coastal Plain and adjacent parts of Maryland and North Carolina. Sediment intervals are designated as either dominantly coarse or fine grained and were determined by interpretation of geophysical logs and ancillary information from 456 boreholes. Sediment-interval and borehole summary statistical data indicate regional trends in sediment lithology and stratigraphic continuity, upon which three structurally based and hydrologically distinct sediment depositional subareas are designated. Broad patterns of sediment deposition over time are inferred from published sediment pollen-age data. Discrepancies in previously drawn hydrostratigraphic relations between southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina are partly resolved based on borehole geophysical logs and a recently documented geologic map and corehole. A conceptual model theorizes the depositional history of the sediments and geologically accounts for their distribution. Documented pumping tests of the Potomac aquifer at 197 locations produced 336 values of transmissivity and 127 values of storativity. Based on effective aquifer thicknesses, 296 values of sediment hydraulic conductivity and 113 values of sediment specific storage are calculated. Vertical hydraulic gradients are calculated from 9,479 pairs of water levels measured between November 17, 1953, and October 4, 2011, in 129 closely spaced pairs of wells.

Borehole sediment-interval and related data provide a means to achieve high yielding production wells in the Potomac aquifer by site-specific targeting of drilling operations toward water-bearing coarse-grained sand and gravel. Advance knowledge of the potential of different parts of the aquifer also aids in planning optimal groundwater-development areas. Depositional subareas further provide a possible context for resource management. Current (2013) regulatory limits on water-level declines are relative to top surfaces of subdivided upper, middle, and lower Potomac aquifers across the entire Virginia Coastal Plain, but have the potential to exceed the same limit relative to a single undivided Potomac aquifer. By contrast, designation of the sediments as a single aquifer in the Norfolk arch and Albemarle embayment subareas—and as a series of vertically spaced subaquifers and intervening confining units in the Salisbury embayment subarea—best reflects understanding of the Potomac aquifer and can avoid the potential for excessive water-level declines. Simulation modeling to evaluate effects of groundwater withdrawals could be designed similarly, including vertical discretization and (or) zonation of the Potomac aquifer based on depositional subareas and a geostatistical distribution of aquifer properties derived from borehole sediment-interval data. Further resource-management information needs extend beyond the developed part of the Potomac aquifer, particularly across the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula where only the shallowest part of the aquifer is known, and include structural aspects such as faults, basement bedrock, and the Chesapeake Bay impact crater.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2013
Title Sediment distribution and hydrologic conditions of the Potomac aquifer in Virginia and parts of Maryland and North Carolina
DOI 10.3133/sir20135116
Authors Randolph E. McFarland
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2013-5116
Index ID sir20135116
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Virginia Water Science Center; South Atlantic Water Science Center