Regional-scale variations in soil geochemistry were investigated in a 20,000-km2 study area in northern California that includes the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, the southern Sacramento Valley and the northern Coast Ranges. Over 1300 archival soil samples collected from the late 1970s to 1980 in El Dorado, Placer, Sutter, Sacramento, Yolo and Solano counties were analyzed for 42 elements by inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectrometry and inductively coupled plasma-mass spectrometry following a near-total dissolution. These data were supplemented by analysis of more than 500 stream-sediment samples from higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada from the same study site. The relatively high-density data (1 sample per 15 km2 for much of the study area) allows the delineation of regional geochemical patterns and the identification of processes that produced these patterns. The geochemical results segregate broadly into distinct element groupings whose distribution reflects the interplay of geologic, hydrologic, geomorphic and anthropogenic factors. One such group includes elements associated with mafic and ultramafic rocks including Cr, Ni, V, Co, Cu and Mg. Using Cr as an example, elevated concentrations occur in soils overlying ultramafic rocks in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada (median Cr = 160 mg/kg) as well as in the northern Coast Ranges. Low concentrations of these elements occur in soils located further upslope in the Sierra Nevada overlying Tertiary volcanic, metasedimentary and plutonic rocks (granodiorite and diorite). Eastern Sacramento Valley soil samples, defined as those located east of the Sacramento River, are lower in Cr (median Cr = 84 mg/kg), and are systematically lower in this suite compared to soils from the west side of the Sacramento Valley (median Cr = 130 mg/kg). A second group of elements showing a coherent pattern, including Ca, K, Sr and REE, is derived from relatively silicic rocks types. This group occurs at elevated concentrations in soils overlying volcanic and plutonic rocks at higher elevations in the Sierras (e.g. median La = 28 mg/kg) and the east side of the Sacramento Valley (median 20 mg/kg) compared to soils overlying ultramafic rocks in the Sierra Nevada foothills (median 15 mg/kg) and the western Sacramento Valley (median 14 mg/kg). The segregation of soil geochemistry into distinctive groupings across the Sacramento River arises from the former presence of a natural levee (now replaced by an artificial one) along the banks of the river. This levee has been a barrier to sediment transport. Sediment transport to the Valley by glacial outwash from higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada and, more recently, debris from placer Au mining has dominated sediment transport to the eastern Valley. High content of mafic elements (and low content of silicic elements) in surface soil in the west side of the valley is due to a combination of lack of silicic source rocks, transport of ultramafic rock material from the Coast Ranges, and input of sediment from the late Mesozoic Great Valley Group, which is itself enriched in mafic elements. A third group of elements (Zn, Cd, As and Cu) reflect the impact of mining activity. Soil with elevated content of these elements occurs along the Sacramento River in both levee and adjacent flood basin settings. It is interpreted that transport of sediment down the Sacramento River from massive sulfide mines in the Klamath Mountains to the north has caused this pattern. The Pb, and to some extent Zn, distribution patterns are strongly impacted by anthropogenic inputs. Elevated Pb content is localized in major cites and along major highways due to inputs from leaded gasoline. Zinc has a similar distribution pattern but the source is tire wear.
Additional publication details
A regional soil and sediment geochemical study in northern California