A Synopsis of Technical Issues of Concern for Monitoring Trace Elements in Highway and Urban Runoff

Open-File Report 2000-422




Trace elements, which are regulated for aquatic life protection, are a primary concern in highway- and urban-runoff studies because stormwater runoff may transport these constituents from the land surface to receiving waters. Many of these trace elements are essential for biological activity and become detrimental only when geologic or anthropogenic sources exceed concentrations beyond ranges typical of the natural environment. The Federal Highway Administration and State Transportation Agencies are concerned about the potential effects of highway runoff on the watershed scale and for the management and protection of watersheds. Transportation agencies need information that is documented as valid, current, and scientifically defensible to support planning and management decisions. There are many technical issues of concern for monitoring trace elements; therefore, trace-element data commonly are considered suspect, and the responsibility to provide data-quality information to support the validity of reported results rests with the data-collection agency. Paved surfaces are fundamentally different physically, hydraulically, and chemically from the natural surfaces typical of most freshwater systems that have been the focus of many traceelement- monitoring studies. Existing scientific conceptions of the behavior of trace elements in the environment are based largely upon research on natural systems, rather than on systems typical of pavement runoff. Additionally, the logistics of stormwater sampling are difficult because of the great uncertainty in the occurrence and magnitude of storm events. Therefore, trace-element monitoring programs may be enhanced if monitoring and sampling programs are automated. Automation would standardize the process and provide a continuous record of the variations in flow and water-quality characteristics. Great care is required to collect and process samples in a manner that will minimize potential contamination or attenuation of trace elements and other sources of bias and variability in the sampling process. Trace elements have both natural and anthropogenic sources that may affect the sampling process, including the sample-collection and handling materials used in many trace-element monitoring studies. Trace elements also react with these materials within the timescales typical for collection, processing and analysis of runoff samples. To study the characteristics and potential effects of trace elements in highway and urban runoff, investigators typically sample one or more operationally defined matrixes including: whole water, dissolved (filtered water), suspended sediment, bottom sediment, biological tissue, and contaminant sources. The sampling and analysis of each of these sample matrixes can provide specific information about the occurrence and distribution of trace elements in runoff and receiving waters. There are, however, technical concerns specific to each matrix that must be understood and addressed through use of proper collection and processing protocols. Valid protocols are designed to minimize inherent problems and to maximize the accuracy, precision, comparability, and representativeness of data collected. Documentation, including information about monitoring protocols, quality assurance and quality control efforts, and ancillary data also is necessary to establish data quality. This documentation is especially important for evaluation of historical traceelement monitoring data, because trace-element monitoring protocols and analysis methods have been constantly changing over the past 30 years.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
A Synopsis of Technical Issues of Concern for Monitoring Trace Elements in Highway and Urban Runoff
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
Geological Survey (U.S.)
Contributing office(s):
Massachusetts-Rhode Island Water Science Center
viii, 67 p.