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Recent (2008-10) water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and its contributing zone, central Texas, with emphasis on factors affecting nutrients and bacteria

Scientific Investigations Report 2011-5139

Prepared in cooperation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
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Abstract

The Barton Springs zone, which comprises the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and the watersheds to the west that contribute to its recharge, is in south-central Texas, an area with rapid growth in population and increasing amounts of land area affected by development. During November 2008-March 2010, an investigation of factors affecting the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria in the Barton Springs zone was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The primary objectives of the study were to characterize occurrence of nutrients and bacteria in the Barton Springs zone under a range of flow conditions; to improve understanding of the interaction between surface-water quality and groundwater quality; and to evaluate how factors such as streamflow variability and dilution affect the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria in the Barton Springs zone. The USGS collected and analyzed water samples from five streams (Barton, Williamson, Slaughter, Bear, and Onion Creeks), two groundwater wells (Marbridge and Buda), and the main orifice of Barton Springs in Austin, Texas. During the period of the study, during which the hydrologic conditions transitioned from exceptional drought to wetter than normal, water samples were collected routinely (every 3 to 4 weeks) from the streams, wells, and spring and, in response to storms, from the streams and spring. All samples were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, the bacterium Escherichia coli, and suspended sediment. During the dry period, the geochemistry of groundwater at the two wells and at Barton Springs was dominated by flow from the aquifer matrix and was relatively similar and unchanging at the three sites. At the onset of the wet period, when the streams began to flow, the geochemistry of groundwater samples from the Marbridge well and Barton Springs changed rapidly, and concentrations of most major ions and nutrients and densities of Escherichia coli became more similar to those of samples from the streams relative to concentrations and densities during the dry period. Geochemical modeling indicated that the proportion of Barton Springs discharge composed of stream recharge increased from about 0-8 percent during the dry period to about 80 percent during the wet period. The transition from exceptional drought to wetter-than-normal conditions resulted in a number of marked changes that highlight factors affecting the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria and the strong influence of stream recharge on water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and had a pronounced effect on the fate of nitrogen species. Organic nitrogen loaded to and stored in soils during the dry period was nitrified to nitrate when the soils were rewetted, resulting in elevated concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite in streams as these constituents were progressively leached during continued wet weather. Estimated mean monthly loads of organic nitrogen and nitrate plus nitrite in stream recharge and Barton Springs discharge, which were relatively low and constant during the dry period, increased during the wet period. Loads of organic nitrogen, on average, were about six times greater in stream recharge than in Barton Springs discharge, indicating that organic nitrogen likely was being converted to nitrate within the aquifer. Loads of total nitrogen (organic nitrogen plus ammonia and nitrate plus nitrite) in stream recharge (162 kilograms per day) and in Barton Springs discharge (157 kilograms per day) for the period of the investigation were not significantly different. Dilution was not an important factor affecting concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite in the streams or in Barton Springs during the period of this investigation: Concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite did not decrease in streams with increasing stream discharge, and nitrate plus nitrite concentrations measured at Barton

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Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Recent (2008-10) water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and its contributing zone, central Texas, with emphasis on factors affecting nutrients and bacteria
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
2011-5139
Year Published:
2011
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Texas Water Science Center
Description:
vii, 57 p.; Appendices
Scale:
24000
Online Only (Y/N):
Y
Additional Online Files(Y/N):
N