The Central Eastside study unit is located in California's San Joaquin Valley. The 1,695 square mile study unit includes three groundwater subbasins: Modesto, Turlock, and Merced (California Department of Water Resources, 2003). The primary water-bearing units consist of discontinuous lenses of gravel, sand, silt, and clay, which are derived largely from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the east. Public-supply wells provide most of the drinking water supply in the Central Eastside. Consequently, the primary aquifer in the Central Eastside study unit is defined as that part of the aquifer corresponding to the perforated interval of wells listed in the California Department of Public Health database. Public-supply wells are typically drilled to depths of 200 to 350 feet, consist of solid casing from the land surface to a depth of about 100 to 200 feet, and they are perforated below the solid casing. Water quality in the shallower and deeper parts of the aquifer system may differ from that in the primary aquifer.
The Central Eastside study unit has hot and dry summers and cool, moist, winters. Average annual rainfall ranges from 11 to 15 inches. The Stanislaus, Tuolumne, and Merced Rivers, with headwaters in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, are the primary streams traversing the study unit.
Land use in the study unit is approximately 59 percent (%) agricultural, 34% natural (primarily grassland), and 7% urban. The primary crops are almonds, walnuts, peaches, grapes, grain, corn, and alfalfa. The largest urban areas (2003 population in parentheses) are the cities of Modesto (206,872), Turlock (63,467), and Merced (69,512).
Municipal water use accounts for about 5% of the total water use in the Central Eastside study unit, with the remainder used for irrigated agriculture. Groundwater accounts for about 75% of the municipal supply, and surface water accounts for about 25%. Recharge to the groundwater flow system is primarily from percolation of irrigation return, precipitation, seepage from reservoirs and rivers, and urban return (Burow and others, 2004; Phillips and others, 2007). The primary sources of discharge are pumping for irrigation and municipal supply, evaporation from areas with a shallow depth to water, and discharge to streams. Recharge at shallow depths and pumping from wells at greater depths causes downward movement of groundwater in the aquifer in the Central Eastside. This vertical movement of water has the potential to carry chemical constituents from shallow depths to the greater depths where supply wells commonly are perforated.