California Water Science Center

Geology, Water-Quality, Hydrology, and Geomechanics of the Cuyama Valley Groundwater Basin, California, 2008–12

By Rhett R. Everett, Dennis R. Gibbs, Randall T. Hanson, Donald S. Sweetkind, Justin T. Brandt, Sarah E. Falk, and Christopher R. Harich

Publication: 7/11/2013, Scientific Investigations Report 2013-5108

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To assess the water resources of the Cuyama Valley groundwater basin in Santa Barbara County, California, a series of cooperative studies were undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Santa Barbara County Water Agency. Between 2008 and 2012, geologic, water-quality, hydrologic and geomechanical data were collected from selected sites throughout the Cuyama Valley groundwater basin.

Geologic data were collected from three multiple-well groundwater monitoring sites and included lithologic descriptions of the drill cuttings, borehole geophysical logs, temperature logs, as well as bulk density and sonic velocity measurements of whole-core samples.

Generalized lithologic characterization from the monitoring sites indicated the water-bearing units in the subsurface consist of unconsolidated to partly consolidated sand, gravel, silt, clay, and occasional cobbles within alluvial fan and stream deposits. Analysis of geophysical logs indicated alternating layers of finer- and coarser-grained material that range from less than 1 foot to more than 20 feet thick. On the basis of the geologic data collected, the principal water-bearing units beneath the monitoring-well sites were found to be composed of younger alluvium of Holocene age, older alluvium of Pleistocene age, and the Tertiary-Quaternary Morales Formation. At all three sites, the contact between the recent fill and younger alluvium is approximately 20 feet below land surface.

Water-quality samples were collected from 12 monitoring wells, 27 domestic and supply wells, 2 springs, and 4 surface-water sites and were analyzed for a variety of constituents that differed by site, but, in general, included trace elements; nutrients; dissolved organic carbon; major and minor ions; silica; total dissolved solids; alkalinity; total arsenic and iron; arsenic, chromium, and iron species; and isotopic tracers, including the stable isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen, activities of tritium, and carbon-14 abundance.

Of the 39 wells sampled, concentrations of total dissolved solids and sulfate from 38 and 37 well samples, respectively, were greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s secondary maximum contaminant levels. Concentrations greater than the maximum contaminant levels for nitrate were observed in five wells and were observed for arsenic in four wells.

Differences in the stable-isotopic values of hydrogen and oxygen among groundwater samples indicated that water does not move freely between different formations or between different zones within the Cuyama Valley. Variations in isotopic composition indicated that recharge is derived from several different sources. The age of the groundwater, expressed as time since recharge, was between 600 and 38,000 years before present. Detectable concentrations of tritium indicated that younger water, recharged since the early 1950s, is present in parts of the groundwater basin.

Hydrologic data were collected from 12 monitoring wells, 56 domestic and supply wells, 3 surface-water sites, and 4 rainfall-gaging stations. Rainfall in the valley averaged about 8 inches annually, whereas the mountains to the south received between 12 and 19 inches. Stream discharge records showed seasonal variability in surface-water flows ranging from no-flow to over 1,500 cubic feet per second. During periods when inflow to the valley exceeds outflow, there is potential recharge from stream losses to the groundwater system

Water-level records included manual quarterly depth-to-water measurements collected from 68 wells, time-series data collected from 20 of those wells, and historic water levels from 16 wells. Hydrographs of the manual measurements showed declining water levels in 16 wells, mostly in the South-Main zone, and rising water levels in 14 wells, mostly in the Southern Ventucopa Uplands. Time-series hydrographs showed daily, seasonal, and longer-term effects associated with local pumping. Water-level data from the multiple-well monitoring sites indicated seasonal fluctuations as great as 80 feet and water-level differences between aquifers as great as 40 feet during peak pumping season. Hydrographs from the multiple-well groundwater monitoring sites showed vertical hydraulic gradients were upward during the winter months and downward during the irrigation season. Historic hydrographs showed water-level declines in the Southern-Main, Western Basin, Caliente Northern-Main, and Southern Sierra Madre zone ranging from 1 to 7 feet per year. Hydrographs of wells in the Southern Ventucopa Uplands zone showed several years with marked increases in water levels that corresponded to increased precipitation in the Cuyama Valley.

Investigation of hydraulic properties included hydraulic conductivity and transmissivity estimated from aquifer tests performed on 63 wells. Estimates of horizontal hydraulic conductivity ranged from about 1.5 to 28 feet per day and decreased with depth. The median estimated hydraulic conductivity for the older alluvium was about five times that estimated for the Morales Formation. Estimates of transmissivity ranged from 560 to 163,400 gallons per day per foot and decreased with depth. The median estimated transmissivity for the younger alluvium was about three times that estimated for the older alluvium.

Geomechanical analysis included land-surface elevation changes at five continuously operating global positioning systems (GPS) and land-subsidence detection at five interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) reference points. Analysis of data collected from continuously operating GPS stations showed the mountains to the south and west moved upward about 1 millimeter (mm) annually, whereas the station in the center of the Southern-Main zone moved downward more than 7 mm annually, indicating subsidence. It is likely that this subsidence is inelastic (permanent) deformation and indicates reduced storage capacity in the aquifer sediments. Analysis of InSAR data showed local and regional changes that appeared to be dependent, in part, on the time span of the interferogram, seasonal variations in pumping, and tectonic uplift. Long-term InSAR time series showed a total maximum detected subsidence rate of approximately 12 mm per year at one location and approximately 8 mm per year at a second location, while short-term InSAR time series showed maximum subsidence of about 15 mm at one location and localized maximum uplift of about 10 mm at another location.

Suggested citation:
Everett, R.R., Gibbs, D.R., Hanson, R.T., Sweetkind, D.S., Brandt, J.T., Falk, S.E. and Harich, C.R., 2013, Geology, water-quality, hydrology, and geomechanics of the Cuyama Valley groundwater basin, California, 2008–12: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2013–5108, 62 p.

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