Nitrogen in downward-infiltrating wastewater discharged from seepage pits (dry wells) at residences in the upper Mojave River Basin, California represents a significant potential source of nitrate contamination to the underlying ground water. However, increases in nitrate concentration in the ground water have not yet been observed. The low nitrate concentration in the ground water may be the result of lateral dispersion in the unsaturated zone, dilution below the water table, or denitrification of wastewater nitrate in the unsaturated zone. Measured vertical rates indicate that some wastewater has reached the water table beneath communities that are older than 5 to 10 years. As wastewater percolates from seepage pits into the unsaturated zone, reduced nitrogen is converted rapidly to nitrate at shallow depths and the nitrate concentrations commonly decrease with depth. The largest nitrate decreases seem to coincide with increased content of fine-grained sediments or with proximity to the water table. Between lysimeters at 160 and 199 feet at one residence, the decrease in nitrate concentration coincided with a large increase in sulfate, decrease in alkalinity, and increase in 815N in nitrate. Those data are consistent with denitrification by oxidation of iron sulfide to produce ferric oxides; but if such a reaction occurs, it must be in domains that are small in comparison with the sampled volumes because the waters also contain substantial quantities of dissolved oxygen. The predominantly low nitrate concentrations in the area's ground water are consistent with the operation of a nitrogen-removal mechanism, possibly denitrification; however, the reducing capacity of the sediments to maintain denitrification is not known.
Additional Publication Details
USGS Numbered Series
Chemical, isotopic, and microbiological evidence for denitrification during transport of domestic wastewater through a thick unsaturated zone in the Mojave Desert, San Bernardino County, California
U.S. Geological Survey ;
For sale by the U.S. Geological Survey, Earth Science Information Center, Open-File Reports Section,