Groundwater quality in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills region of California was investigated as part of California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB) Groundwater Ambient Monitoring Assessment Priority Basin Project (GAMA-PBP). The region was divided into two study units: the Yuba-Bear watersheds (YBW) study unit and the American-Cosumnes-Mokelumne watersheds (ACMW) study unit. The GAMA-PBP made a spatially unbiased assessment of aquifer systems used for domestic drinking-water supply in the study region, which are predominantly composed of fractured, hard-rock aquifers of varying lithology. These assessments characterized the quality of raw groundwater to evaluate ambient conditions in the domestic-supply aquifer and not the quality of treated drinking water.
The study included three components: (1) a status assessment, which characterized the quality of groundwater resources used for domestic drinking-water supply in the YBW and ACMW study units; (2) an understanding assessment, which evaluated natural and anthropogenic explanatory factors that could potentially affect groundwater quality in the study region; and (3) a comparative assessment between the groundwater resources used for domestic and public drinking-water supply in the study region.
The status assessment was based on data collected by the GAMA-PBP from 74 sites in the YBW study unit during 2015–16 and 67 sites in the ACMW study unit from 2016 to 2017. To contextualize water-quality results, concentrations of water-quality constituents in ambient groundwater were compared to regulatory and non-regulatory benchmarks typically used by the State of California and Federal agencies as health-based or aesthetic standards for public drinking water. The status assessment used a grid-based method to estimate proportions of groundwater resources with concentrations approaching or exceeding benchmark thresholds. This method provides spatially unbiased results and allows inter-comparability with similar groundwater-quality assessments.
Inorganic constituents with health-based benchmarks were present at high relative concentration (RC), meaning they exceeded the benchmark threshold, in 5.4 and 10 percent of domestic-supply aquifer systems in the YBW and ACMW study units, respectively. Inorganic constituents with aesthetic-based benchmarks were detected at high-RCs in 20 and 28 percent of the YBW and ACMW study units, respectively. The inorganic constituents present at high RC were arsenic, barium, boron, molybdenum, strontium, nitrate, adjusted gross-alpha particle activity, chloride, total dissolved solids, specific conductance, iron, manganese, and hardness. Groundwater samples were tested for presence or absence of three microbial indicators (total coliform, Escherichia coli, and Enterococci). At least one microbial indicator was present in 26 and 28 percent of the YBW and ACMW study units, respectively. At least one organic constituent was detected in 30 and 42 percent of the YBW and ACMW study units, respectively. Organic constituents were not present at high RC, but tetrachloroethene (PCE), trichloroethene (TCE), and toluene were detected in the YBW study unit at moderate RC (between the benchmark concentration and one-tenth of the benchmark concentration). Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE) and chloroform were present at low RC (less than one-tenth of the benchmark concentration) in the YBW and ACMW study units with detection frequencies greater than 10 percent. Perchlorate, a constituent of special interest, was detected in 31 and 41 percent of the YBW and ACMW study units, respectively, at either low or moderate RCs.
Relations among select water-quality constituents and potential explanatory factors were evaluated using statistical and graphical approaches. Nitrate, microbial indicators, and perchlorate were all correlated to elevation-dependent variables relating to climate, land use, and recharge condition. Isotopic and dissolved noble-gas tracers indicated these water-quality constituents are associated with recharge conditions associated with irrigation during the summer dry-season, which is common in areas of rural-residential or agricultural land uses. Higher concentrations of iron and manganese were primarily associated with anoxic groundwater in aquifers of metasedimentary lithology. Increased hardness was primarily associated with anoxic groundwater in aquifers of mafic-ultramafic or metavolcanics lithologies at lower elevations in the study region in the Melones fault zone. Chloroform and MTBE were associated with shallow groundwater (wells depths less than 130 m) under oxic and anoxic redox conditions, respectively.
The comparative assessment evaluated differences between the aquifer systems used for domestic- and public-supply in study region based on (1) well-construction characteristics, and (2) water quality. Analysis of over 60,000 well-completion reports in the study region showed that although domestic-supply wells span the deepest depth zones in regional aquifers, median depths for public-supply wells were significantly greater than those of domestic-supply wells in both study units. Water-quality data from more than 300 public-supply wells in the study region were assessed using a spatially weighted method for calculation aquifer-scale proportions and compared with the domestic-supply assessment results. Detections of inorganic constituents at high RC and detection frequencies for organic constituents were generally similar between the domestic- and public-supply aquifer systems in both study units, with a few notable exceptions in the ACMW study unit: nitrate was greater for the public- compared to domestic-supply aquifer system and both manganese, hardness, and MTBE were greater in the domestic- compared to public-supply aquifer system. These differences are likely related to contrasting land uses, aquifer lithologies, landscape positions, and depths characterizing domestic- and public-supply wells in the ACMW study unit.
Overall, fewer samples from domestic-supply wells in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills exceeded health-based benchmarks compared to aesthetic-based benchmarks for groundwater quality. Exceedences of health-based benchmarks were primarily caused by nitrate and coliform bacteria, which were associated with recharge from diverted surface water used primarily for irrigation. Exceedences of aesthetic-based benchmarks were primarily caused by iron, managanese, and hardness, which were associated with geologic factors. Regional irrigation practices and aquifer lithology can affect groundwater quality in fractured-rock aquifers in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills used for domestic drinking-water supply.
|Title||Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the northern Sierra Nevada foothills domestic-supply aquifer study units, 2015–17—California GAMA Priority Basin Project|
|Authors||Zeno F. Levy, Miranda S. Fram|
|Publication Subtype||USGS Numbered Series|
|Series Title||Scientific Investigations Report|
|Record Source||USGS Publications Warehouse|
|USGS Organization||California Water Science Center|