California Oil, Gas, and Groundwater Program

Publication: Reports and Papers


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Metzger, L. F. and Landon, M. K.


U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2018-5082



The distribution of groundwater salinity was mapped for 31 oil fields and adjacent aquifers and summarized by 8 subregions across major oil-producing areas of central and southern California. The objectives of this study were to describe the distribution of groundwater near oil fields having total dissolved solids less than 10,000 milligrams per liter (mg/L) based on available data and to document where data gaps exist. Salinity was represented by the measured or calculated concentration of total dissolved solids (TDS) in samples of produced water obtained from petroleum wells and groundwater obtained from water wells. The water chemistry data were used to estimate the minimum depths of TDS greater than 3,000 mg/L and greater than 10,000 mg/L in areas near selected oil fields using historical water-chemistry data coupled with available well-location and construction information.

The 10,000 mg/L threshold, representing the highest level of TDS concentration of water that could be considered as a potential source of drinking water, was present in all but 4 (Jasmin, Kern Bluff, Kern Front, and Mount Poso) of the 31 individual oil fields. Among petroleum wells, the median TDS concentration of produced water ranged from 500 mg/L for the Jasmin field to 32,636 mg/L for the Elk Hills field. Among water wells, median TDS concentrations, either reported or calculated from specific conductance, ranged from 151 mg/L for wells within 2 miles of the Ten Section field to 9,750 mg/L for wells within 2 miles of the combined North and South Belridge fields.

In general, TDS across the eight geographic subregions increased with depth, but the relation of TDS with depth varied regionally. The most pronounced increases in TDS with depth were across the West Kern Valley Floor and West Kern Valley Margin subregions on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, and in the vicinity of the Wilmington field in the Los Angeles Basin subregion; in these areas, relatively high TDS concentrations greater than 10,000 mg/L were present within the upper few hundred to several thousand feet of land surface. Total dissolved solids concentrations increased more gradually with depth in the Middle Kern Valley Floor subregion, in the South Kern Valley Margin subregion, in the vicinity of the Montebello and Santa Fe Springs fields in the Los Angeles Basin subregion, and in the Central Coast Basin subregion. The Kern Sierran Foothills and East Kern Valley Floor subregions, on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley, had the most gradual increases in TDS with depth. Fields in the East Kern Valley Floor subregion generally had groundwater and produced water with TDS less than 10,000 mg/L that extended to a large depth compared to most other subregions.

Overall, the west side of the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County and the Wilmington field in Los Angeles County generally have the highest TDS values and the shallowest depths to high TDS. High TDS at relatively shallow depths on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley may be because of a combination of natural conditions and anthropogenic factors. In the vicinity of the Wilmington field in the Los Angeles Basin subregion, high TDS at relatively shallow depths is attributable at least in part to seawater intrusion. Fields on the east side of the San Joaquin Valley in Kern County have the lowest TDS and greatest depths to TDS greater than 10,000 mg/L because of their geologic setting adjacent to Sierra Nevada recharge areas.

Reconnaissance salinity mapping was limited by several factors. The primary limitation was the lack of well-construction data for a significant number of water wells. Bottom perforation, well depth, or hole depth were not available for 35 percent of wells used for salinity mapping. A second limitation was variability in data quality. Total dissolved solids and specific conductance data were compiled from different data sources with varying degrees of documentation that ranged from comprehensive to very little or none. As a result, it was not always possible to assess the quality of the provided data with respect to either conditions at each well during sampling or the methodology used for sample collection and analysis. A third limitation was the lack of wells, either petroleum or water, and associated TDS data over large vertical intervals for some fields. As a result, the distribution of salinity and the depths at which TDS concentration exceeds the 3,000 and 10,000 mg/L thresholds could not always be precisely determined. This analysis highlights key gaps that need to be filled with additional analysis of other sources of information, such as borehole geophysical logs and new water sample or geophysical data collection.