Geology and water resources of Owens Valley, California

Water Supply Paper 2370- B
By: , and 



Owens Valley, a long, narrow valley located along the east flank of the Sierra Nevada in east-central California, is the main source of water for the city of Los Angeles. The city diverts most of the surface water in the valley into the Owens River-Los Angeles Aqueduct system, which transports the water more than 200 miles south to areas of distribution and use. Additionally, ground water is pumped or flows from wells to supplement the surface-water diversions to the river-aqueduct system. Pumpage from wells needed to supplement water export has increased since 1970, when a second aqueduct was put into service, and local concerns have been expressed that the increased pumpage may have had a detrimental effect on the environment and the indigenous alkaline scrub and meadow plant communities in the valley. The scrub and meadow communities depend on soil moisture derived from precipitation and the unconfined part of a multilayered aquifer system. This report, which describes the hydrogeology of the aquifer system and the water resources of the valley, is one in a series designed to (1) evaluate the effects that groundwater pumping has on scrub and meadow communities and (2) appraise alternative strategies to mitigate any adverse effects caused by, pumping. Two principal topographic features are the surface expression of the geologic framework--the high, prominent mountains on the east and west sides of the valley and the long, narrow intermountain valley floor. The mountains are composed of sedimentary, granitic, and metamorphic rocks, mantled in part by volcanic rocks as well as by glacial, talus, and fluvial deposits. The valley floor is underlain by valley fill that consists of unconsolidated to moderately consolidated alluvial fan, transition-zone, glacial and talus, and fluvial and lacustrine deposits. The valley fill also includes interlayered recent volcanic flows and pyroclastic rocks. The bedrock surface beneath the valley fill is a narrow, steep-sided graben that is structurally separated into the Bishop Basin to the north and the Owens Lake Basin to the south. These two structural basins are separated by (1) a bedrock high that is the upper bedrock block of an east-west normal fault, (2) a horst block of bedrock (the Poverty Hills), and (3) Quaternary basalt flows and cinder cones that intercalate and intrude the sedimentary deposits of the valley fill. The resulting structural separation of the basins allowed separate development of fluvial and lacustrine depositional systems in each basin. Nearly all the ground water in Owens Valley flows through and is stored in the saturated valley fill. The bedrock, which surrounds and underlies the valley fill, is virtually impermeable. Three hydrogeologic units compose the valley-fill aquifer system, a defined subdivision of the ground-water system, and a fourth represents the valley fill below the aquifer system and above the bedrock. The aquifer system is divided into horizontal hydrogeologic units on the basis of either (1) uniform hydrologic characteristics of a specific lithologic layer or (2) distribution of the vertical hydraulic head. Hydrogeologic unit 1 is the upper unit and represents the unconfined part of the system, hydrogeologic unit 2 represents the confining unit (or units), and hydrogeologic unit 3 represents the confined part of the aquifer system. Hydrogeologic unit 4 represents the deep part of the ground-water system and lies below the aquifer system. Hydrogeologic unit 4 transmits or stores much less water than hydrogeologic unit 3 and represents either a moderately consolidated valley fill or a geologic unit in the valley fill defined on the basis of geophysical data. Nearly all the recharge to the aquifer system is from infiltration of runoff from snowmelt and rainfall on the Sierra Nevada. In contrast, little recharge occurs to the system by runoff from the White and Inyo Mountains or from direct precipitation on the valley floor. Ground wat

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Geology and water resources of Owens Valley, California
Series title Water Supply Paper
Series number 2370
Chapter B
DOI 10.3133/wsp2370B
Edition -
Year Published 1991
Language ENGLISH
Publisher U.S. G.P.O. ;For sale by the Books and Open-File Reports Section,
Description 77 p. 2 plates n pocket. Supercedes Open-file report 88-715.
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