Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the Monterey-Salinas Shallow Aquifer Study Unit, 2012–13: California GAMA Priority Basin Project

Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5057
Prepared in cooperation with the California State Water Resources Control Board
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Abstract

Groundwater quality in the approximately 7,820-square-kilometer (km2) Monterey-Salinas Shallow Aquifer (MS-SA) study unit was investigated from October 2012 to May 2013 as part of the second phase of the Priority Basin Project of the Groundwater Ambient Monitoring and Assessment (GAMA) Program. The study unit is in the central coast region of California in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Luis Obispo. The GAMA Priority Basin Project is being conducted by the California State Water Resources Control Board in cooperation with the U.S. Geological Survey and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The MS-SA study was designed to provide a statistically robust assessment of untreated-groundwater quality in the shallow aquifer systems. The assessment was based on water-quality samples collected by the U.S. Geological Survey from 100 groundwater sites and 70 household tap sites, along with ancillary data such as land use and well-construction information. The shallow aquifer systems were defined by the depth interval of wells associated with domestic supply. The MS-SA study unit consisted of four study areas—Santa Cruz (210 km2), Pajaro Valley (360 km2), Salinas Valley (2,000 km2), and Highlands (5,250 km2).

This study had two primary components: the status assessment and the understanding assessment. The first primary component of this study—the status assessment—assessed the quality of the groundwater resource indicated by data from samples analyzed for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), pesticides, and naturally present inorganic constituents, such as major ions and trace elements. The status assessment is intended to characterize the quality of groundwater resources in the shallow aquifer system of the MS-SA study unit, not the treated drinking water delivered to consumers by water purveyors. As opposed to the public wells, however, water from private wells, which often tap the shallow aquifer, is usually consumed without any treatment. The second component of this study—the understanding assessment—identified the natural and human factors that potentially affect groundwater quality by evaluating land-use characteristics, measures of location, geologic factors, groundwater age, and geochemical conditions of the shallow aquifer. An additional component of this study was a comparison of MS-SA water-quality results to those of the GAMA Monterey Bay and Salinas Valley Groundwater Basins study unit. This study unit covered much of the same areal extent as the MS-SA, but assessed the deeper, public drinking-water aquifer system.

Relative concentrations (sample concentration divided by the benchmark concentration) were used to evaluate concentrations of constituents in groundwater samples relative to water-quality benchmarks for those constituents that have Federal or California benchmarks, such as maximum contaminant levels. For organic and special-interest constituents, relative concentrations were classified as high, greater than 1.0; moderate, greater than 0.1 and less than or equal to 1.0; or low, less than or equal to 0.1. For inorganic constituents, relative concentrations were classified as high, greater than 1.0; moderate, greater than 0.5 and less than or equal to 1.0; or low, less than or equal to 0.5. A relative concentration greater than 1.0 indicates that the concentration was greater than a benchmark. Aquifer-scale proportions were used to quantify regional-scale groundwater quality. The aquifer-scale proportions are the areal percentages of the shallow aquifer system where relative concentrations for a given constituent or class of constituents were high, moderate, or low.

Inorganic constituents were measured at high and moderate relative concentrations more frequently than organic constituents. In the MS-SA study unit, inorganic constituents with benchmarks were detected at high relative concentrations in 51 percent of the study unit. The greatest proportions of high relative concentrations of trace elements and radioactive constituents were in the Highlands and Santa Cruz study areas, whereas high relative concentrations of nutrients were most often detected in the Salinas Valley and Pajaro Valley study areas and salinity indicators were most often detected in the Highlands and Salinas Valley study areas. The trace elements detected at high relative concentrations were arsenic, boron, iron, manganese, molybdenum, selenium, and strontium. The radioactive constituents detected at high relative concentrations were adjusted gross alpha radioactivity and uranium. The nutrient detected at high relative concentrations was nitrate plus nitrite. The salinity indicators detected at high relative concentrations were chloride, sulfate, and total dissolved solids.

Organic constituents (VOCs and pesticides) were not detected at high relative concentrations in any of the study areas. The fumigant 1,2-dichloropropane was detected at moderate relative concentrations. The VOC chloroform and the pesticide simazine were the only organic constituents detected in more than 10 percent of samples. The constituents of special interest NDMA (N-nitrosodimethylamine) and perchlorate were detected at high relative concentrations in the MS-SA study unit.

Selected constituents were evaluated with explanatory factors to identify potential sources or processes that could explain their presence and distribution. Trace elements and radioactive constituents came from natural sources and were not elevated by anthropogenic sources or processes, except for selenium and the radioactive constituent uranium. Arsenic, manganese, iron, selenium, and uranium concentrations were all influenced by oxidation-reduction conditions.

Unlike other trace elements and radioactive constituents, uranium and selenium can be affected by agricultural practices. Uranium and selenium can be released from aquifer sediments as a result of irrigation recharge water interacting with bicarbonate systems.
Nitrate can be strongly affected by anthropogenic sources. Nitrate concentrations were significantly higher in modern groundwater, indicating recent inputs of nitrate to the shallow aquifer system. Nitrate was positively correlated with agricultural land use, indicating that irrigation-return water could be leaching nitrogen fertilizer and naturally present nitrate to elevate nitrate concentrations in shallow groundwater.

The salinity indicators total dissolved solids, chloride, and sulfate all had natural sources in the MS-SA study unit, primarily marine sediments. Concentrations of the constituents were elevated as a result of evaporative concentration of irrigation water or precipitation. Sulfate concentrations were significantly correlated to agricultural land use, indicating that agricultural land-use practices are a contributing source of sulfate to groundwater.

The samples with most of the detections of VOCs were from sites in the Pajaro Valley and northern part of the Salinas Valley. Most of the samples with pesticide detections were from sites in the Salinas Valley study area. The herbicide simazine was positively correlated to the percentage of agricultural land use, and its concentrations were higher in modern groundwater than in pre-modern groundwater.

Perchlorate, similar to nitrate, has natural and anthropogenic sources. Correlations of perchlorate to dissolved oxygen, nitrate, and percentage of agricultural land use indicated that the irrigation-return water could be leaching naturally present perchlorate, as well as perchlorate from historical applications of Chilean nitrate fertilizer, to increase perchlorate concentrations in groundwater.

The quality of the water in the shallow aquifer system from this study was compared with the quality of water in the public drinking-water aquifer in a previous GAMA (MS-PA) study in the same area. The shallow system was more oxic and had more sites with modern groundwater than the public drinking-water aquifer, which was more anoxic and had sites with more pre-modern groundwater. Arsenic and selenium were found at high relative concentrations in a greater proportion of the shallow system. Manganese and iron were found at high relative concentrations in a greater proportion of the public drinking-water aquifer. Uranium was found at higher relative concentrations in a greater proportion of the shallow system. Concentrations of arsenic, iron, manganese, and molybdenum are not likely to change much as groundwater percolates from the shallow system to the public drinking-water aquifer because there are no anthropogenic sources affecting these constituents. Uranium and selenium concentrations in the public drinking-water aquifer could be affected by the higher concentrations in the shallow system because of irrigation-return water, however.

Nitrate and salinity indicators had concentrations that were much higher in the shallow system than the deeper public drinking-water aquifer. High concentrations of these constituents in the shallow system could lead to increased concentrations in the public drinking-water aquifer in parts of the study units because of land-use practices, such as irrigated agriculture.

Organic constituents were detected more frequently in the public drinking-water aquifer than in the shallow system, possibly because more of the sites sampled in the public drinking-water aquifer were in urban areas compared to the sites sampled for the shallow system or because sources of contamination have decreased as a result of changes in use at the land surface.

Suggested Citation

Burton, C.A., and Wright, M.T., 2018, Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the Monterey-Salinas Shallow Aquifer study unit, 2012–13: California GAMA Priority Basin Project (ver. 1.1, September 2018): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018–5057, 116 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20185057.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Hydrogeologic Setting of the Monterey-Salinas Shallow Aquifer Study Unit
  • Methods
  • Potential Explanatory Factors
  • Correlations Between Explanatory Factors
  • Status and Understanding of Water Quality
  • Comparison of Water Quality of the Shallow and Public Drinking-Water Aquifer Systems
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1. Ancillary Datasets

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Status and understanding of groundwater quality in the Monterey-Salinas Shallow Aquifer Study Unit, 2012–13: California GAMA Priority Basin Project
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2018-5057
DOI 10.3133/sir20185057
Edition Version 1.1: September 2018; Version 1.0: May 2018
Year Published 2018
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description Report: x, 116 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial Monterey-Salinas Shallow Aquifer study unit
Online Only (Y/N) Y