Regional chloride distribution in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system from Long Island, New York, to North Carolina

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5034




The aquifers of the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain are the principal source of water supply for the region’s nearly 20 million residents. Water quality and water levels in the aquifers, and maintenance of streamflow, are of concern because of the use of this natural resource for water supply and because of the possible effects of climate change and changes in land use on groundwater. The long-term sustainability of this natural resource is a concern at the local community scale, as well as at a regional scale, across state boundaries. In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began a regional assessment of the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifers. An important part of this assessment is a regional interpretation of the extent of saltwater and the proximity of saltwater to fresh-groundwater resources and includes samples and published interpretations of chloride concentrations newly available since the last regional chloride assessment in 1989. This updated assessment also includes consideration of chloride samples and refined interpretations that stem from the 1994 discovery of the buried 35 million year old Chesapeake Bay impact structure that has substantially altered the understanding of the hydrogeologic framework and saltwater distribution in eastern Virginia.

In this study, the regional area of concern for the chloride samples and interpretations extends from the Fall Line in the west to the outer edge of the Continental Shelf in the east and from the eastern tip of Long Island in the north to about halfway down the North Carolina coast in the south. Discussions of chloride distribution are presented for each of the 10 regional aquifer layers of the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain, including the offshore extents. Maps of interpreted lines of equal concentration or isochlors were manually prepared for nine of the regional aquifers; a map was not prepared for the surficial regional aquifer. The isochlor interpretations include the offshore extent of the nine regional aquifers and are presented on a 1:2,000,000 scale base map. Vertically, the chloride samples and interpretations range from deepest (oldest) to shallowest (youngest)—Potomac-Patuxent, Potomac-Patapsco, Magothy, Matawan, Monmouth-Mount Laurel, Aquia, Piney Point, Lower Chesapeake, and Upper Chesapeake regional aquifers.

The approach of this study maximizes the overall density of chloride information and data by assessing relevant published interpretations, all USGS chloride samples, and all relevant offshore samples in one comprehensive interpretation. Published isochlors, where they were interpreted by regional aquifer, were used as much as possible for this regional isochlor assessment. Publication dates for the isochlors used range from 1982 to 2015, and the scales for the isochlors range from local (county or municipality) to state (sub-regional) to regional. The USGS National Water Information System database provided well sample data for the parts of aquifers that are mainly beneath the land areas and yielded 37,517 water-quality records for 1903 through 2011. Published data reports from four phases of research-related offshore coring (1976, 1993, 1997, 2009) were the main source of water-quality data for the parts of aquifers from the shoreline to the outer edge of the Continental Shelf and yielded samples from multiple depths of each of 13 cores. This study also used interpretations and offshore core data from the last regional chloride assessment (1989) which, in addition to 7 offshore cores, included water-quality data from about 500 wells, and borehole geophysics interpretations from a subset of 11 wells. All published information and data that were used in this study were considered time independent and did not assess the published interpretations or data for temporal trends. The approach used here examined only published interpretations and available chloride data, and did not directly use supplemental techniques that can provide insight into the distribution of saltwater, such as geochemical characterization, borehole geophysical information, and geochronology.

Isochlor maps for this study are limited to manual interpretations of the 250-milligram per liter (mg/L) and 10,000-mg/L boundaries developed for 9 of the 10 regional aquifers that constitute the regional hydrogeologic framework of the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain. For a given aquifer, the approach was to initially consider published isochlor interpretations, where available, then to modify the published interpretations, if necessary, to the extent indicated by the well and core samples. The final step was to interpolate isochlors to the full extent of each aquifer layer in areas with sufficient samples or cited interpretations, or to extrapolate isochlors in areas with no samples or where samples were sparse.

The principal limitation of this study is that, because of its regional extent, data and information density can vary greatly, and thus confidence in interpretations can vary widely for onshore and offshore areas across the study area. In areas of sparse data, some samples of elevated chloride could be misinterpreted as being part of a regional elevated chloride trend, and in other cases, an elevated concentration could be misinterpreted as being of only local importance. The interpretive work of this study was applied to a 1:2,000,000 scale base map. Locations of isochlors, wells, cores, political boundaries, and shorelines are meant to be considered approximate.

The isochlors presented in this study were manually interpreted for each aquifer unit as a conceptual representation of an equal concentration line approximately in the middle of an aquifer’s thickness. Differences in chloride concentration lines between the top and bottom of an aquifer could be substantial, especially for the thick parts of aquifers, but that information is not presented in this regional assessment.

Although additional offshore chloride data are available compared to 27 years ago (1989), the offshore information remains sparse, resulting in less confidence in the offshore interpretations than in the onshore interpretations. Regionally, the 250- and 10,000-mg/L isochlors tend to map progressively eastward from the deepest to the shallowest aquifers across the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system but with some exceptions. The additional data, conceptual understanding, and interpretations in the vicinity of the buried Chesapeake Bay impact structure in eastern Virginia resulted in substantial refinement of isochlors in that area. Overall, the interpretations in this study are updates of the previous regional study from 1989 but do not comprise major differences in interpretation and do not indicate regional movement of the freshwater-saltwater interface since then.

Suggested Citation

Charles, E.G., 2016, Regional chloride distribution in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system from Long Island, New York, to North Carolina: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5034, 37 p., appendixes,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Sources and Method for Isochlor Interpretations
  • Isochlor Interpretations by Regional Aquifer
  • Limitations of the Study
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
  • Appendixes

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Regional chloride distribution in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system from Long Island, New York, to North Carolina
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
New Jersey Water Science Center, South Atlantic Water Science Center
Report: v, 35 p.; Appendixes: 1 and 2; Data Releases
United States
Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Virginia
Other Geospatial:
Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain aquifer system
Online Only (Y/N):
Additional Online Files (Y/N):