Hydrogeology of the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system in the northern Midwest: B in Regional aquifer-system analysis

Professional Paper 1405-B




The Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system contains the most extensive and continuous aquifers in the northern Midwest of the United States. It is the source of water for many municipalities, industries, and rural water users. Since the beginning of ground-water development from the aquifer system in the late 1800's, hydraulic heads have declined hundreds of feet in the heavily pumped Chicago-Milwaukee area and somewhat less in other metropolitan areas. The U.S. Geological Survey has completed a regional assessment of this aquifer system within a 161,000-square-mile area encompassing northern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, northern Missouri, and Wisconsin.

Consolidated sedimentary rocks in the northern Midwest range in age from Precambrian to Cretaceous and crop out in generally concentric, arcuate patterns, dipping away from structural highs (arches) on the Precambrian basement in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin toward structural lows (basins) to the south and east. The sedimentary bedrock is generally overlain by a veneer of glacial drift. Thickness of the sedimentary sequence increases to about 5,000 feet in the Forest City basin of southwestern Iowa and to about 14,000 and more than 15,000 feet in the Illinois and Michigan basins, respectively.

Cambrian and Ordovician age rocks, mainly marine sandstone and carbonate rocks, compose much of the sedimentary sequence and form the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system. The aquifer system lies on the Precambrian basement, regarded as a regional confining unit. Six hydrogeologic units are defined; they are arranged as alternating pairs of an aquifer and an overlying confining. unit. The units are named using the predominant geologic nomenclature of the upper Mississippi Valley, which includes most of the study area. In the southern quarter of the area, the hydrogeologic units consist of equivalent formations of the Ozark area (mostly carbonate rocks). The uppermost part of the aquifer system is the Maquoketa confining unit, which consists of the Maquoketa Shale and the underlying dolomite and shale of the Galena Dolomite and the Decorah, Platteville, and Glenwood Formations.

The underlying St. Peter-Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer is an important source of ground water in the western part of the area in Iowa and Minnesota, where the uniform Jordan Sandstone is hydraulically connected to overlying fractured dolomite of the Prairie du Chien Group. The unit is less important in the eastern part of Wisconsin and Illinois because the Jordan Sandstone is absent and the Prairie du Chien Group is thin or absent due to pre-St. Peter Sandstone erosion. Equivalent rocks in northern Missouri-the Roubidoux Formation and the Gasconade and Eminence Dolomites-are mainly carbonate rocks that are somewhat permeable and contain some sandstone.

The St. Lawrence and Franconia Formations underlying the St. Peter-Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer consist generally of silty and shaly, fine-grained, poorly sorted, and dolomitic sandstones that restrict vertical movement of ground water and form a regional confining unit. In the southern and eastern parts of the area, the Potosi and Derby-Doerun Dolomites and the upper part of the Davis Formation are the equivalent rocks (mainly carbonate rocks).

In the east-central part of the area in Illinois and Wisconsin, the Ironton-Galesville aquifer forms the most important aquifer of the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system, contributing about one-third of the yield from wells in the aquifer system in the Chicago area. The aquifer terminates to the west, south, and east, where the sandstones grade into less permeable carbonate rocks in central Iowa, central Illinois, and northwestern Indiana, respectively.

The underlying Eau Claire Formation and its partial equivalent to the southwest, the Bonneterre Formation, form an important confining unit above the Mount Simon aquifer throughout much of the study area. Siltstone and shale are fairly common in the upper part of the Eau Claire Formation but less so in its northernmost extent in Wisconsin. Dolomite content increases southward and westward, where a middle dolomite facies grades laterally into the Bonneterre in Missouri, southwestern Minnesota, extreme south-central Wisconsin, and possibly in western Iowa.

The basal unit in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system, the Mount Simon aquifer, is present throughout the study area, except where it is absent over local highs of the Precambrian basement. It consists primarily of the Mount Simon Sandstone in the north and its equivalent in northern Missouri, the Lamotte Sandstone. The underlying Hinckley Sandstone of Precambrian age is included in Minnesota, as is the overlying Elmhurst Sandstone Member of the Eau Claire Formation in northern Illinois. The aquifer increases greatly in thickness and the water is progressively more saline away from the northern structural highs toward the basins.

Much of the movement and discharge of ground water in the northern Midwest occurs in local, unconfined, shallow flow systems within a few miles of points of recharge. The rest of the water is semiconfined or confined in intermediate or regional flow systems within the bedrock, where flow is deeper, slower, and traverses much longer distances from recharge areas to discharge areas. The major areas of recharge to regional confined flow are in northwestern Iowa, southeastern Minnesota, western, southern, and eastern Wisconsin, and northern Illinois. Although the rate of flow is small, significant recharge to the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system also occurs as leakage through the Maquoketa confining unit, where the vertical hydraulic gradient is downward.

Ground water in much of the confined aquifer system moves laterally from recharge areas toward the major river valleys and Lake Michigan or down dip toward the structural basins. The longest flow paths extend as much as 400 miles from northwestern Iowa southeast toward the Illinois basin or to the Mississippi River and Missouri River valleys near their confluence. Other major confined flow is from eastern Wisconsin toward the Michigan basin and southward flow from northeastern Illinois toward the Illinois basin.

Regional ground-water discharge from the aquifer system is mainly diffuse upward leakage from confined aquifers along flow paths toward the structural basins. Very saline water around and brines within the basins restrict regional flow into the basins, forcing ground water to discharge upward. Water in intermediate flow systems discharges upward to the major river valleys.

Original heads of more than 100 feet above land surface were recorded in the aquifer system near Lake Michigan in eastern Wisconsin and at Dubuque, Iowa, along the Mississippi River. The Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system was developed rapidly in the late 1800's after the first deep well was drilled in Chicago in 1864. Many flowing wells were not controlled, which caused water levels in deep wells to decline, and many no longer flowed by the early 1900's.

Heads in the aquifers have declined very little in most of the recharge or unconfined areas since ground-water withdrawal began, but major declines have occurred in confined areas. The largest declines in head are at Chicago, Illinois, Milwaukee and Green Bay, Wisconsin, and Mason City, Iowa, where the aquifer system is confined by the Maquoketa confining unit. The composite head in the aquifer system declined more than 900 feet in the deepest cones of depression in the Chicago area from 1864 to 1980 and about 375 feet in the cone at Milwaukee from 1880 to 1980. More than 200 feet of decline has occurred at Mason City. The head declined as much as 440 feet in Green Bay from 1886 to 1957, when the city discontinued use of its deep wells and began using water from Lake Michigan.

The largest centers of pumping are in the Chicago and Twin Cities (Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota) metropolitan areas about 180 million gallons per day each in 1980. Pumpage exceeded 10 million gallons per day in only a few other areas in 1980.

Ground water in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system in the northern Midwest is characterized by an extreme range of mineralization, but its quality in most of the area is good. The major cations are calcium, magnesium, and sodium, and the major anions are bicarbonate, sulfate, and chloride. Sodium, sulfate, and chloride distributions are closely related to the distribution pattern of dissolved solids but not in the same proportion. Dissolved-solids concentration is generally less than 1,000 milligrams per liter in the recharge areas of Wisconsin, southern Minnesota, northeastern Iowa, and north-central Illinois where the aquifer system crops out or subcrops beneath glacial drift. Ground water there is the Ca-Mg-HC03 type, derived from and identical to that in the overlying glacial drift.

In northwestern Iowa and southwestern Minnesota, the water in both the glacial drift and the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system is a Ca-Na-S04HC03 type, derived from oxidation of pyrite in the overlying Cretaceous Dakota Formation.

Transition to higher dissolved solids in the confined areas commonly is accompanied by increased sulfate concentration and· the occurrence of Ca-Na-S04-type water. Salinity of the ground water increases progressively toward the .basins, where dissolved solids exceed 200,000 milligrams per liter. Saline water is present in the Mount Simon aquifer near Lake Michigan in eastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois but occurs in successively younger rocks to the east and south as they dip toward the basins. Similarly, salinity increases down dip in Iowa to the southwest and south; however, regional ground-water flow in Iowa is from northwest to southeast.

Much of the ground water in the confined aquifer system is isotopically depleted in 0180 and OD with respect to modern precipitation-an indication that the water originated as precipitation in a much colder climate than the present and probably was derived from recharge of glacial meltwater. On the basis of o34S values for sulfur in sulfate, it is believed that isostatic loading from glacial ice over the Michigan basin reversed the hydraulic gradient to trend westward, opposite from the present gradient, causing saline water in the Michigan basin to discharge westward through the present recharge areas.

Natural water-quality problems in the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system are mainly the high dissolved-solids concentrations and associated high concentrations of sulfate and chloride, which limit the use of the water for municipal and domestic purposes in much of the confined aquifer system in central and southern Illinois, Indiana, southern and western Iowa, and northern Missouri. Another concern is that radium activity exceeds normal background concentrations of a few picocuries per liter in much of the confined aquifer system in eastern Wisconsin, northeastern Illinois, and central Iowa. Other common problems are high hardness and locally excessive concentrations of iron and hydrogen sulfide.


Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Hydrogeology of the Cambrian-Ordovician aquifer system in the northern Midwest: B in Regional aquifer-system analysis
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Wisconsin Water Science Center
Report: 99 p.; 1 Plate: 22.25 x 28.94 inches
Larger Work Title:
Regional aquifer-system analysis
United States
Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Wisconsin
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