Arsenic in Ground Water of the Willamette Basin, Oregon


In response to increasing demands on ground-water resources in the Willamette Basin, Oregon (fig. 1), the Oregon Water Resources Department (OWRD) and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began a cooperative study of the basin's ground-water resources in 1996. This study was designed to increase the current understanding of the ground-water resource, and to better characterize the distribution of naturally occurring poor-quality ground water in the basin. Essential components of the study of the physical ground-water resource are the development of a quantitative understanding of regional ground-water availability and flow, and of ground-water/surface-water interactions. Of paramount interest in the characterization of naturally occurring poor-quality ground water in the Willamette Basin is the distribution of arsenic in ground water, the subject of this report.

Figure 1. Location and features of the Willamette Basin, Oregon

Arsenic contaminates many regional aquifer systems worldwide (Cantor, 1996; Thornton, 1996), and arsenic commonly is detected in ground water of the Willamette Basin at concentrations exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) current drinking water Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 50 µg/L (micrograms per liter) (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1996). Arsenic is associated with a number of adverse effects on human health. The USEPA considers arsenic to be a human carcinogen (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1996). Examples of other adverse health effects attributed to consumption of arsenic range from weakness and abdominal pain to neurological and cardiovascular problems. A review of health effects associated with consumption of arsenic is given in a report by World Health Organization (1996).

Purpose and Scope

The primary purpose of this report is to describe the spatial distribution of arsenic concentrations in ground water of the Willamette Basin. Both historical data and data collected for this study (henceforth, "project data") were used for this purpose. Project data also were used to evaluate temporal variability of arsenic concentrations. It is useful to have an understanding of temporal variability before arsenic-concentration data, collected at different times, is used to evaluate spatial distributions. Evaluation of temporal variability may also benefit well owners and water managers, who may require guidance on timing for sampling.

A secondary purpose of this report is to briefly summarize current knowledge of the geochemistry of arsenic in the Willamette Basin. Relevant geochemical data are few, so this discussion is inherently general, serving mainly to outline future research needs. Possible sources of arsenic are evaluated, and geochemical processes that may control arsenic mobilization are briefly discussed.

Location and Description of the Willamette Basin

The Willamette Basin is an approximately 12,000-square-mile basin in northwestern Oregon. Primary drainage is by the Willamette River, but for the purposes of the study, the basin is defined to also include the region drained by the Sandy River; both rivers are tributary to the Columbia River. The Willamette Basin was home to 69 percent of the State's population in 1990 (Broad and Collins, 1996).

The crests of two north-south trending mountain ranges, the Coast and the Cascade Ranges, respectively define the western and eastern edges of the Willamette Basin. The Willamette Valley, an elongated, structural and erosional lowland, lies between these mountain ranges. The Coast Range is composed of marine sedimentary rocks and associated volcanic rocks. The Cascade Range is composed of lava flows and pyroclastic and epiclastic rocks. The Willamette Valley is filled with clastic basin-fill sediments of primarily alluvial origin; these alluvial sediments form the most important aquifers in the Willamette Basin. The geologic framework of the basin is described by Gannett and Caldwell (in press), and a regional representation of the surficial geology of the Willamette Basin is given on the geologic map of Oregon compiled by Walker and MacLeod (1991). Usage of geologic names in this report is consistent with that of Walker and MacLeod (1991).

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U.S. Geological Survey
Last modified 9/22/99