Ground-water quality in the approximately 1,800 square-mile Southern Sierra study unit (SOSA) was investigated in June 2006 as part of the Statewide Basin Assessment Project of the Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) Program. The GAMA Statewide Basin Assessment Project was developed in response to the Groundwater Quality Monitoring Act of 2001 and is being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in cooperation with the California State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB).
The Southern Sierra study was designed to provide a spatially unbiased assessment of raw ground-water quality within SOSA, as well as a statistically consistent basis for comparing water quality throughout California. Samples were collected from fifty wells in Kern and Tulare Counties. Thirty-five of the wells were selected using a randomized grid-based method to provide statistical representation of the study area, and fifteen were selected to evaluate changes in water chemistry along ground-water flow paths.
The ground-water samples were analyzed for a large number of synthetic organic constituents [volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides and pesticide degradates, pharmaceutical compounds, and wastewater-indicator compounds], constituents of special interest [perchlorate, N-nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA), and 1,2,3-trichloropropane (1,2,3-TCP)], naturally occurring inorganic constituents [nutrients, major and minor ions, and trace elements], radioactive constituents, and microbial indicators. Naturally occurring isotopes [tritium, and carbon-14, and stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in water], and dissolved noble gases also were measured to help identify the source and age of the sampled ground water.
Quality-control samples (blanks, replicates, and samples for matrix spikes) were collected for approximately one-eighth of the wells, and the results for these samples were used to evaluate the quality of the data for the ground-water samples. Assessment of the quality-control information resulted in censoring of less than 0.2 percent of the data collected for ground-water samples.
This study did not attempt to evaluate the quality of water delivered to consumers; after withdrawal from the ground, water typically is treated, disinfected, or blended with other waters to maintain acceptable water quality. Regulatory thresholds apply to treated water that is served to the consumer, not to raw ground water. However, to provide some context for the results, concentrations of constituents measured in the raw ground water were compared with health-based thresholds established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) and California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and thresholds established for aesthetic concerns (secondary maximum contaminant levels, SMCL-CA) by CDPH.
VOCs and pesticides were detected in less than one-third of the grid wells, and all detections in samples from SOSA wells were below health-based thresholds. All detections of trace elements and nutrients in samples from SOSA wells were below health-based thresholds, with the exception of four detections of arsenic that were above the USEPA maximum contaminant level (MCL-US) and one detection of boron that was above the CDPH notification level (NL-CA). All detections of radioactive constituents were below health-based thresholds, although four samples had activities of radon-222 above the proposed MCL-US. Most of the samples from SOSA wells had concentrations of major elements, total dissolved solids, and trace elements below the non-enforceable thresholds set for aesthetic concerns. A few samples contained iron, manganese, or total dissolved solids at concentrations above the SMCL-CA thresholds.