Geology and quality of water in the Modesto-Merced area, San Joaquin Valley, California, with a brief section on hydrology

Water-Resources Investigations Report 73-6
Prepared in cooperation with the California Department of Water Resources
By:  and 



The Modesto-Merced area includes about 1,800 square miles on the northeast side of the San Joaquin Valley. The physiographic units in the area are (1) Sierra Nevada, (2) dissected uplands, (3) low alluvial plains and fans, (4) river flood plains and channels, and (5) overflow lands.

Geologic units consist of consolidated rocks and unconsolidated deposits. The dominant structure of the geologic units is that of a homocline, which reflects the southwestward-tilted fault block of the Sierra Nevada. The consolidated rocks include: (1) basement complex (pre-Tertiary), (2) marine sandstone and shale (Cretaceous), (3) Ione Formation and other sedimentary rocks (Eocene), (4) Valley Springs Formation (late? Miocene), and (5) the Mehrten Formation (Miocene and Pliocene). In the eastern part of the area, the consolidated rocks generally yield small quantities of water to wells except for the Mehrten Formation which is an important aquifer.

The unconsolidated deposits include: (1) continental deposits (Pliocene and Pleistocene?), (2) lacustrine and marsh deposits (Pleistocene), (3) older alluvium (Pleistocene and Holocene?), (4) younger alluvium (Holocene), and (5) flood-basin deposits (Holocene). The continental deposits and older alluvium are the main water-yielding units in the unconsolidated deposits. The lacustrine and marsh deposits (E-clay) and the flood-basin deposits yield little water to wells, and the younger alluvium in most places probably yields only moderate quantities of water to wells.

There are three ground-water bodies in the Modesto-Merced area: (1) the unconfined water body, (2) the confined water body, and (3) the water body in consolidated rocks. The unconfined water body occurs in the unconsolidated deposits above and east of the E-clay, except in the western and southern parts of the area where clay lenses occur and semiconfined conditions exist. The confined water body occurs in the unconsolidated deposits below the E-clay and extends downward to the base of fresh water. The water body in consolidated rocks occurs under both perched and confined conditions.

Ground-water movement in the unconfined and the confined water bodies is generally westward toward the valley trough. In the unconfined water body, the water also moves toward the major rivers, and toward pumping depressions at Modesto and near El Nido. Because of the higher head in the unconfined water body, water slowly moves from it through the E-clay to the underlying confined water body.

Surface water is used extensively for irrigation in most of the study area; consequently, shallow water in the unconfined water body has to be controlled by pumping. Nevertheless, water levels near Modesto declined about 6 feet between 1958 and 1962, for the most part during the dry years 1959-61. Near El Nido, water levels declined about 70 feet between 1942 and 1967. In the confined water body, water levels were high in the winter and spring and low in the summer and fall, reflecting irrigation practices. In the southwestern part of the area, water levels in the confined water body declined about 14 feet from 1962 to 1968 and rose slightly after 1968, whereas in the northwestern part water levels remained fairly constant.

Water from the upper reaches of the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, and Chowchilla Rivers is calcium bicarbonate in chemical type and is of excellent quality. As those rivers cross the valley floor, their water quality is generally degraded by return flows from irrigated land, and in the Tuolumne River by saline water discharged from abandoned gas wells. Average dissolvedsolids content in the major rivers, as indicated by chemical analyses, do not exceed 400 mg/1 (milligrams per liter) except in the San Joaquin River where average dissolved-solids content has not exceeded 1,050 mg/l.

Water from minor streams in the area is bicarbonate in chemical type with dissolved-solids content ranging from 56 mg/1 to about 350 mg/l.

Although chloride-type fresh ground water occurs in the unconfined and confined water bodies and in the water body in consolidated rocks, most of the fresh ground water is a bicarbonate type that has a dissolved-solids content of less than 500 mg/l.

Water having dissolved solids in excess of about 2,000 mg/1 is considered to be saline. Saline water extends below the base of fresh water to the basement complex and, except in the extreme eastern part, underlies most of the study area. Saline water also occurs as lenses above the base of fresh water in the unconfined and confined water bodies.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Geology and quality of water in the Modesto-Merced area, San Joaquin Valley, California, with a brief section on hydrology
Series title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number 73-6
DOI 10.3133/wri736
Year Published 1973
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Description v, 85 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial San Joaquin Valley
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details