Physiographic Provinces of Virginia

Physiographic Provinces of Virginia Map


Cumberland Plateau (PI)

Geology: Sedimentary rock yielding ground water of varying quality
Pollution Potential: Moderate

The Cumberland Plateau province, encompassing the Southwestern tip of Virginia, is underlain by sedimentary rocks, principally sandstone, shale, and coal. Ground water quality here varies with depth. The first 100 feet of rock below stream level is often of poor quality, tending to be sulfurous and iron-rich, and naturally saline waters occur at depths greater than 300 feet. Better quality water can be found at depths of 150 to 300 feet below stream level, however. In coal mining areas, some ground water has become acidic due to mine drainage and is usually unsuitable for most uses.


Valley & Ridge (VR)

Geology: Sedimentary rocks including limestone, dolomite, and shale
Pollution Potential: High in limestone areas, where ground water can move rapidly

Consolidated sedimentary rocks deposited beneath ancient seas underlie the Valley and Ridge Province to the west of the Blue Ridge. In the lowlands, such as the Shenandoah Valley, limestone and dolomite occur beneath the surface forming the most productive aquifers in Virginia's consolidated rock formations. In contrast, sandstone and shale are the rock types often present in the ridges and upland areas, which yield only enough water for rural and domestic supplies.

The connection between ground water and surface water plays a major role in ground water recharge in the Valley and Ridge, where streams often cross fault zones recharging aquifers. Wells in the fault zones have the greatest yields. Recharge also occurs through surface run-off into limestone sinkholes, bypassing filtration through the soil. This can cause serious water quality problems since polluted surface water may be introduced directly into the ground water system. Ground water quality can also be adversely affected by private trash dumps located in sinkholes that receive surface run-off. In addition, carbonate formations contribute to the 'hardness' of the ground water.

The karst limestone type of terrain in the valley poses difficult problems for wellhead protection area delineation since underground conduits may act much like surface rivers. Some studies have suggested that surface water drainage patterns may be the best way to delineate wellhead protection areas in such circumstances.


Blue Ridge (BR)

Geology: Impervious rock. Well yields are low
Pollution Potential: High, because of rapid movement of water in cracks and fissures

The Blue Ridge Province is a relatively narrow zone to the west of the Piedmont, from 4 to 25 miles wide, with mountains of some of the highest elevations in the state. Beneath a thin layer of soil and weathered rock lies the bedrock, a relatively impervious zone containing water primarily in joints, fractures, and faults. On the eastern flank of the Blue Ridge, igneous and metamorphic rocks are most common; sedimentary rocks are more common on the western flank. Steep terrain and thin soil covering result in rapid surface run-off and low ground water recharge.

There has been little residential or industrial development in the Blue Ridge itself, so ground water use has been mainly for domestic needs rather than for public wells. The lower slopes of the mountains are the most favorable areas for ground water accumulation. Springs are common and are often used for private water supplies. Because the rocks in the Blue Ridge are relatively insoluble, the ground water is not severely mineralized, but iron content is high in some locations.


Piedmont (P)

Geology: Diverse geology with a wide range of ground water quality and availability
Pollution Potential: Low to moderate

The largest physiographic province in Virginia is the Piedmont, extending from the fall line on the east to the Blue Ridge Mountains in the center of the state. Hard, crystalline igneous and metamorphic formations dominate this region with some areas of sedimentary rocks, with sapprolite deposits overlying the bedrock. The size and number of fractures and faults in the bedrock which store and transmit ground water decrease with depth, so most significant water supplies are found within a few hundred feet of the surface. Fairly large yields of water can be obtained where fracture and fault systems are extensive, as in the Western Piedmont along the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The diversity of the subsurface geology of the Piedmont Province results in wide variations in ground water quality and well yields, with ground water use at many locations limited. A few areas, for example, have problems with high iron concentrations and acidity. Because of the range in ground water quality and quantity in this region, as well as the subsequent varying potential for contamination, well site evaluation and well monitoring is very important here. From a wellhead protection standpoint, assumptions about the porosity/permeability of the overlying sapprolite may have to be made so that reasonable estimates of wellhead protection areas can be calculated.


Coastal Plain (CP)

Geology: Unconsolidated sand, clay, marl, and shell strata. Groundwater is abundant and use is high.
Pollution Potential: High, due to geology and population density

The Coastal Plain in Virginia extends inland from the coast about 110 miles to the fall line and passes roughly through Fairfax County, Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg, and Emporia. The Eastern Shore is part of this region and the two counties there have for several years been conducting studies to develop a more detailed understanding of their ground water situation. The Coastal Plain region is the only one in Virginia that is composed mostly of unconsolidated deposits, primarily alternating layers of sand, gravel, shell rock, silt, and clay. More ground water is stored in these very permeable materials than in any other province in the state. The pollution potential in the uppermost unconfined aquifer here is high, however, because of the permeability coupled with the high population density and agricultural activities in the area.

A large portion of the state's ground water use occurs in the Coastal Plain, which has two separate ground water systems, one shallow and one deep. In many places, a shallow unconfined aquifer system lies above relatively impermeable clay beds and is the source of water for hundreds of domestic and other small capacity wells. The principal source of major ground water withdrawals is a deeper system of confined aquifers. The recharge area to these aquifers occurs miles away where the formations outcrop but infiltration from the water table and shallower confined aquifer also recharge the deeper confined aquifers and could carry pollutants into these deeper reaches. The coastal plain presents a complex wellhead protection problem where the deep confined aquifers are concerned. The shallower aquifer, however, may have a more direct interaction with the surface and present a relatively straightforward challenge.

Except for areas where saltwater, iron, and hydrogen sulfide occur, the natural water quality in the Coastal Plain aquifers is good. In aquifers near a salt water interface, salt water may migrate west as aquifers are pumped. As a result, water from the deep aquifers on much of the lower York-James Peninsula and the Norfolk-Virginia Beach area generally contains high chloride concentrations, rendering the water too salty for domestic use without treatment.

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Virginia Department of
Environmental Quality
P.O. Box 1105
Richmond, VA 23218
(804) 698-4000


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