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  Arsenic in Ground Water of the Willamette Basin, Oregon

DISTRIBUTION OF ARSENIC

The distribution of arsenic in ground water of the Willamette Basin is discussed in terms of temporal and spatial variability. First, project data are used to assess temporal variability. It is useful to assess temporal variability before arsenic-concentration data collected at different times is used to evaluate spatial distribution. Also, assessment of temporal variability should benefit well owners and water managers who desire guidance on when to sample for arsenic. Second, historical and project data are used to define spatial variability of arsenic concentrations in ground water in the Willamette Basin.

Temporal Variability

Project data were used to evaluate temporal variability of arsenic concentrations in ground water during a 1-year period. These data help characterize variability resulting from seasonal and other short- to medium-term factors. Characterization of temporal variability in arsenic concentrations over longer periods of time was not explicitly done, but long-term variability was discussed qualitatively in a previous section of this report, "Quality of Historical Data."

Arsenic concentrations measured quarterly over a period of 1 year at 17 sites are given in table 3 and shown on figure 4. Field-measured specific conductance, a surrogate for dissolved solids, also is given in table 3. Arsenic concentrations did exhibit temporal variability. Although arsenic concentrations in water from many wells remained essentially constant over the course of sampling, concentrations at some sites varied by up to almost ±50 percent from mean concentrations, and arsenic concentrations in samples from well 19S/01W-03ADB varied by a factor of 2.7 between the lowest and highest concentrations. The data as a whole demonstrate no obvious correlation with seasons. Analytical variability may be responsible for some of the observed variability, but can only explain up to about ±20-percent variation among samples. Differences in arsenic concentrations also could be due, in part, to temporally varying amounts of colloid- or sediment-bound arsenic. However, 10 of the 17 wells used for quarterly sampling also were used in the comparison of unfiltered and filtered samples. The resulting data showed little colloid- or sediment-bound arsenic present in samples from those wells at that time, except for well 21S/03E-08CBD2. Clearly, other factors are responsible for some of the observed temporal variability in arsenic concentrations.
 

Table 3. Temporal variation in arsenic concentrations and specific conductance

["As", arsenic concentration in µg/L (micrograms per liter); "SC", field-measured specific conductance in µS/cm (microsiemens per centimeter) at 25 degrees Celsius; "--", not measured]
Well location
Date
As
SC
Date
As
SC
Date
As
SC
Date
As
SC
Date
As
SC
01N/03W-04CCC
11/21/96
53
587
02/20/97
52
585
05/15/97
82
496
08/19/97
97
522
12/05/97
72
616
01N/03W-07CCD1
11/19/96
16
345
02/20/97
17
357
05/15/97
19
345
08/19/97
26
314
12/05/97
18
345
01N/03W-15ADB1
11/21/96
53
1,220
02/20/97
47
1,300
05/15/97
64
1,390
08/19/97
63
1,500
12/05/97
52
1,450
01S/02W-29DBD
11/12/96
33
--
02/20/97
28
194
05/15/97
35
193
08/19/97
41
195
12/05/97
29
192
01S/02W-33BBA
11/12/96
12
--
02/20/97
10
274
05/15/97
12
272
08/19/97
13
275
12/05/97
12
274
01S/03W-10BCA1
11/19/96
59
341
02/20/97
52
340
05/15/97
62
339
08/19/97
56
339
12/05/97
56
341
02S/02W-11CCD1
11/19/96
20
335
02/20/97
16
335
05/15/97
18
334
08/19/97
19
336
12/05/97
18
336
15S/01W-23CCA
08/14/96
19
268
11/15/96
18
263
02/18/97
19
261
05/13/97
17
262
08/20/97
19
262
15S/01W-23CCC2
08/14/96
11
164
11/15/96
11
167
02/18/97
10
163
05/13/97
9
161
08/20/97
12
164
17S/01W-24DCA
09/06/96
85
194
11/15/96
70
198
02/19/97
74
195
05/13/97
84
191
08/21/97
69
193
18S/04W-14ACA
09/05/96
9
319
11/14/96
6
293
02/18/97
5
253
05/14/97
6
250
08/21/97
10
320
18S/04W-14BBA
09/04/96
830
1,040
11/15/96
1,100
1,070
02/20/97
640
797
a a a
08/20/97
1,100
1,060
19S/01W-03ADB
09/04/96
15
188
11/14/96
40
329
02/18/97
23
193
05/13/97
33
237
08/21/97
28
205
19S/03W-11E2
11/13/96
700
389
02/19/97
710
393
05/14/97
740
396
08/20/97
850
391
12/04/97
800
390
19S/03W-31E1
11/13/96
130
295
02/19/97
130
295
05/14/97
140
291
08/20/97
130
285
12/04/97
130
292
21S/03E-08CBD2
09/05/96
140
1,590
11/14/96
180
1,460
02/18/97
130
1,120
05/13/97
100
1090
09/04/97
69
1,450
22S/03W-17N
09/05/96
3
298
11/13/96
3
292
02/19/97
4
276
05/14/97
4
295
09/04/97
4
381
a Four samples within 37 hours:

05/13/97 at 7 p.m., As, 1100 µg/L; SC, 1090 µS/cm
05/14/97 at 10 a.m., As, 810 µg/L; SC, 952 µS/cm
05/14/97 at 8 p.m., As, 880 µg/L; SC, 809 µS/cm
05/15/97 at 8 a.m., As, 600 µg/L; SC, 877 µS/cm.

  

Figure 4. Temporal variation in arsenic concentrations.

It is likely that temporal variability in project data reflects variation in contributing sources of water to wells, and in the absence of seasonal patterns in temporal data, variation in contributing sources to wells is probably largely due to short-term (hour-to-hour or day-to-day) variations in well use prior to sampling. Relatively heavy well use can temporarily deplete water from parts of an aquifer adjacent to the well, and thus the well can yield water of different chemical quality than when sampled after a period of relatively light use. Two pieces of evidence suggest that some of the 17 wells sampled for temporal variability yield water from different sources at different times, although a relation between differences in contributing sources to wells and differences in well use remains only a hypothesis. One piece of evidence for changing water sources to wells lies in the specific conductance data. Specific conductance generally was less variable in samples where arsenic concentrations were less variable (table 3). Furthermore, specific conductance had the greatest relative temporal variability for water from well 19S/01W-03ADB; the same site also had the greatest relative temporal variability in arsenic concentrations (table 3). Because large changes in the chemistry of individual bodies of ground water generally take place over a period of years, it is difficult to explain large seasonal changes in specific conductance of well water by processes other than changing water sources to wells. A second piece of evidence suggesting changing water sources to wells is derived from examination of data from well 18S/04W-14BBA. Maximum and minimum arsenic concentrations in samples from this site varied by nearly a factor of two over the course of a year. At this site, some additional temporal sampling was conducted. Four samples were collected over one 37-hour period. The observed variability during a 37-hour period was as great as the variability observed during the course of a year (table 3, fig. 4). Such variability over the course of 37 hours cannot be ascribed to seasonal factors.

Certainly, a relationship between arsenic concentrations and well use prior to sampling remains only a hypothesis. But regardless of the processes resulting in the observed temporal variability, the data demonstrate that short-term variability in arsenic concentrations can be similar in magnitude to variability observed during the course of quarterly sampling.

The temporal variability of the project data (less than a factor of three) contrasts greatly with temporal variability in arsenic concentrations reported by Nadakavukaren and others (1984) for some wells in Lane County in the southern part of the Willamette Basin. Nadakavukaren and others (1984) reported temporal variability of up to about three orders of magnitude over the course of a year for some of the 14 wells sampled. Such variability is intriguing, because temporal variability of this magnitude in ground-water chemistry at individual sites is unusual.

Nadakavukaren and others (1984) noted that arsenic concentrations often were low (relative to mean concentrations) during the winter (rainy) season. However, they also reported that equally low concentrations were observed during other seasons, including the summer (dry) season, at several sites. Thus, although they observed temporal variability in arsenic concentrations, Nadakavukaren and others (1984) reported that they were unable to relate temporal variability to environmental factors. Unfortunately, sample-collection procedures were not defined in the paper. One aspect of the data not discussed in the original paper, but that may have significant bearing on interpretation of temporal variability, is that most of the wells sampled were irrigation wells. Irrigation wells tend to be unused during the rainy season, and frequently remain idle for long periods during other parts of the year. Recall that it was proposed that temporal variability of project data was related, at least in part, to well use prior to sampling, and recall, also, that project wells either were actively used domestic wells or were sampled after purging three well-bore volumes. It is possible that the extreme variability in arsenic concentrations reported by Nadakavukaren and others (1984) could be related to previous well use (or lack of well use), especially if the wells were not purged prior to sampling. Certainly, the use of irrigation wells for most of the work presented by Nadakavukaren and others (1984), and the absence of documentation of well-purging criteria, make interpretation of their temporal data difficult. Data of Nadakavukaren and others (1984) suggest that caution be applied when using historical data for which both well-use and well-purging information are unavailable.

The absence of seasonal trends in project data suggests that data collected at different times in the Willamette Basin can be combined for use in definition of spatial variability in arsenic concentrations. However, data of Nadakavukaren and others (1984), although difficult to interpret, suggest that historical data for which the history of well use and well purging are unknown may not always be sufficient for site-specific characterization. Thus, although temporal variability is not likely to be a significant problem for a regional evaluation of ground-water arsenic concentrations, the quality of historical data should be evaluated. Most of the historical data compiled for use in this report were from samples collected by USGS personnel. The remainder of the data (from Linn County Department of Health Services, Environmental Health Program) were collected from domestic wells, which presumably were actively used wells. USGS protocols have long required (at least as far back as 1960; Rainwater and Thatcher, 1960) that ground- water samples be collected from purged or actively used wells. Thus, from a standpoint of well use/well purging, the historical data used in this report are believed to be of adequate quality for a regional assessment of arsenic concentrations in ground water. Resampling of selected wells represented in the historical data supports this assumption, as was shown in the section "Quality of Historical Data."

Spatial Distribution

Historical and project data were combined and used to evaluate the spatial distribution of arsenic concentrations in ground water of the Willamette Basin. A total of 728 spatially distinct samples thus were available--597 historical and 131 project samples. Of these 728 samples, 721 were from wells, and 7 were from nonthermal springs. These data are available in digital format (CD-ROM) in a separate data report (Orzol and others, in press).

Concentrations of arsenic in the 728 samples ranged from < (less than) 1 to 2,000µ g/L. A histogram of these data is shown on figure 5. Concentrations in 58 samples (8.0 percent) exceeded the USEPA current MCL (50 µg/L), and 158 (21.7 percent) exceeded the WHO provisional guideline (10 µg/L). The 728 samples were not randomly distributed throughout the basin, so it does not follow that 8 percent of all wells in the basin will exceed the USEPA current MCL. Furthermore, because some of the data (in particular, data of Goldblatt and others, 1963, and data from Linn County Department of Health Services) were collected to address suspected arsenic problems, the cumulative data set contains a bias towards high arsenic concentrations (exceeding the USEPA current MCL). The data do, however, indicate the existence of extensive bodies of high-arsenic ground water in the basin.

 

Figure 5. Arsenic concentrations for sites sampled in the Willamette Basin, Oregon. (Number in parentheses is percentage of the total number of sites.

Depth data were available for 651 of the 728 sites. The relation of arsenic concentration to depth is shown on figure 6. Data from springs were included on this figure; springs were assigned a "well depth" of zero. (For plotting purposes, censored data [concentrations below reporting levels] were arbitrarily plotted at one-half of the reporting levels. Censoring occurred at three concentration levels: 1, 5, and 10 µg/L.) No obvious relation of arsenic concentration to well depth was observed. On a regional scale, depth does not appear to be a useful parameter for predicting arsenic concentrations. However, depth may be an important parameter on a local scale.

Figure 6. Relation of arsenic concentration to well depth. (Data from six springs also are included; "well depth" is set to zero for springs.)

The spatial distribution of arsenic concentrations is shown on plate 1 (222 KB GIF). Patterns of arsenic occurrence are apparent. Most (53) of the 58 samples with high concentrations of arsenic came from wells and springs in bedrock areas (areas where bedrock is exposed at land surface or is covered by thin layers of alluvium) in south-central and eastern Lane County, and Linn County (pl. 1). The remaining 5 (of the 58) samples came from wells near the center of the Tualatin Basin in Washington County (northwestern part of the Willamette Basin) (pl. 1). These five wells produce water from alluvial deposits. Not only were most of the 58 occurrences of high arsenic concentrations in Lane and Linn Counties, but the highest concentrations also were found there. Arsenic concentrations ranged up to 2,000 µg/L in Lane and Linn Counties, and six samples contained1,000 µg/L. In contrast, the maximum concentration of arsenic in the Tualatin Basin, 77 µg/L, was substantially smaller than many of the concentrations found in Lane and Linn Counties, although still a concentration of considerable concern.

All five exceedances of the USEPA current MCL in the Tualatin Basin were from filtered samples. Many of the exceedances of the USEPA current MCL in Lane and Linn Counties were from unfiltered samples, but concentrations in filtered samples from that part of the Willamette Basin have been observed to exceed 1,000 µg/L. Because filtered samples generally contain primarily dissolved constituents, the presence of high concentrations of arsenic in filtered samples suggests that geochemical conditions can be favorable for development of high dissolved-arsenic concentrations both in the Tualatin Basin and in bedrock areas of Lane and Linn Counties.

Intermediate arsenic concentrations (>10 µg/L and 50 µg/L) were widespread in the Willamette Basin (pl. 1). As might be expected, many of the occurrences of intermediate arsenic concentrations were located in the same regions where high arsenic concentrations were found. However, intermediate arsenic concentrations were found in many other areas as well, and in a variety of geologic materials.

Occurrence of high concentrations of arsenic in bedrock areas of Lane and Linn Counties appears to be related to the areal extent of two associations of older volcanic rocks: (1) the Fisher and Eugene Formations and correlative rocks (Oligocene and upper Eocene epochs), and (2) undifferentiated tuffaceous sedimentary rocks, tuffs, and basalt (Miocene and Oligocene epochs). (The undifferentiated tuffaceous sedimentary rocks, tuffs, and basalt are approximately equivalent to the Little Butte Volcanic Series of Peck and others [1964].) The surficial extent of these two rock associations is shown on plate 1. At land surface, the two rock associations cover 24 percent of the Willamette Basin. All detections of high concentrations of arsenic in Lane and Linn Counties occur in or very close to places where these volcanic rocks crop out, or in areas where thin layers of alluvial materials cover the rocks. These rocks include extensive volumes of silicic (rhyolitic) volcanic rocks. Ground water high in naturally occurring arsenic commonly is associated with volcanic rocks silicic to intermediate in composition (Welch and others, 1988). Thus, the apparent relationship between high concentrations of arsenic and geologic unit is not unexpected.

Interpretation of relationships between high concentrations of arsenic in ground water and geologic units could be improved upon at a local scale by use of more detailed (local) geologic maps. For example, although high concentrations of arsenic often occur in water within the Fisher and Eugene Formations and correlative rocks, Goldblatt and others (1963) suggest that the Fisher Formation, and not the Eugene Formation, is the source of most of the arsenic in that area. Similarly, water within basalt flows in the undifferentiated tuffaceous sedimentary rocks, tuffs, and basalt is not a likely candidate for high concentrations of arsenic because basalt typically yields water low in arsenic (Welch and others, 1988). The regional nature of the work presented in this report, with the requisite use of regional-scale rock associations, did not allow for finer-scale interpretation of the occurrence of high concentrations of arsenic relative to geologic characteristics. However, investigators involved in local-scale ground-water assessments should be able to make use of more detailed geologic mapping to help guide sampling.

Large portions of the area covered by the Fisher and Eugene Formations and correlative rocks, and the undifferentiated tuffaceous sedimentary rocks, tuffs, and basalt, are not represented by data collected and compiled for this report. Although most of the unsampled areas underlain by these rocks are not densely populated, they are not uninhabited, and the potential for impacts to human health are not insignificant. The surface exposure of these rocks alone represents 24 percent of the area of the Willamette Basin, and their full extent is greater. Additional sampling of wells completed in these arsenic-containing rocks would better define the spatial distribution of high-arsenic water in areas not sampled during this study. Further, the presence of high arsenic concentrations in other aquifers in the Willamette Basin (pl. 1) suggests that additional sampling might reveal still more problem areas.

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