Water-quality data, collected at 57 hydrologic bench-mark stations in 37 States, allow the definition of water quality in the 'natural' environment and the comparison of 'natural' water quality with water quality of major streams draining similar water-resources regions. Results indicate that water quality in the 'natural' environment is generally very good. Streams draining hydrologic bench-mark basins generally contain low concentrations of dissolved constituents. Water collected at the hydrologic bench-mark stations was analyzed for the following minor metals: arsenic, barium, cadmium, hexavalent chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, selenium, silver, and zinc. Of 642 analyses, about 65 percent of the observed concentrations were zero. Only three samples contained metals in excess of U.S. Public Health Service recommended drinking-water standards--two selenium concentrations and one cadmium concentration. A total of 213 samples were analyzed for 11 pesticidal compounds. Widespread but very low-level occurrence of pesticide residues in the 'natural' environment was found--about 30 percent of all samples contained low-level concentrations of pesticidal compounds. The DDT family of pesticides occurred most commonly, accounting for 75 percent of the detected occurrences. The highest observed concentration of DDT was 0.06 microgram per litre, well below the recommended maximum permissible in drinking water. Nitrate concentrations in the 'natural' environment generally varied from 0.2 to 0.5 milligram per litre. The average concentration of nitrate in many major streams is as much as 10 times greater.
The relationship between dissolved-solids concentration and discharge per unit area in the 'natural' environment for the various physical divisions in the United States has been shown to be an applicable tool for approximating 'natural' water quality. The relationship between dissolved-solids concentration and discharge per unit area is applicable in all the physical divisions of the United States,
except the Central Lowland province of the Interior Plains, the Great Plains province of the Interior Plains, and the Basin and Ridge province of the Intermontane Plateaus. The relationship between dissolved-solids concentration and discharge per unit area is least variable in the New England province and Blue Ridge province of the Appalachian Highlands. The dissolved-solids concentration versus discharge per unit area in the Central Lowland province of the Interior Plains is highly variable. A sample collected from the hydrologic bench-mark station at Bear Den Creek near Mandaree, N. Dak., contained 3,420 milligrams per litre dissolved solids. This high concentration in the 'natural' environment indicates that natural processes can be principal agents in modifying the environment and can cause degradation. Average annual runoff and rock type can be used as predictive tools to determine the maximum dissolved-solids concentration expected in the 'natural' environment.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Water quality of hydrologic bench marks; an indicator of water quality in the natural environment