Hydrogeologic framework, ground-water geochemistry, and assessment of nitrogen yield from base flow in two agricultural watersheds, Kent County, Maryland

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Hydrostratigraphic and geochemical data collected in two adjacent watersheds on the Delmarva Peninsula, in Kent County, Maryland, indicate that shallow subsurface stratigraphy is an important factor that affects the concentrations of nitrogen in ground water discharging as stream base flow. The flux of nitrogen from shallow aquifers can contribute substantially to the eutrophication of streams and estuaries, degrading water quality and aquatic habitats. The information presented in this report includes a hydrostratigraphic framework for the Locust Grove study area, analyses and interpretation of ground-water chemistry, and an analysis of nutrient yields from stream base flow. An understanding of the processes by which ground-water nitrogen discharges to streams is important for optimal management of nutrients in watersheds in which ground-water discharge is an appreciable percentage of total streamflow. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA), collected and analyzed hydrostratigraphic and geochemical data in support of ground-water flow modeling by the USEPA.

The adjacent watersheds of Morgan Creek and Chesterville Branch have similar topography and land use; however, reported nitrogen concentrations are generally 6 to 10 milligrams per liter in Chesterville Branch but only 2 to 4 milligrams per liter in Morgan Creek. Ground water in the surficial aquifer in the recharge areas of both streams has high concentrations of nitrate (greater than 10 milligrams per liter as N) and dissolved oxygen. One component of the ground water discharging to Morgan Creek typically is anoxic and contains virtually no dissolved nitrate; most of the ground water discharging to Chesterville Branch is oxygenated and contains moderately high concentrations of nitrate.

The surficial aquifer in the study area is composed of the deeply weathered sands and gravels of the Pensauken Formation (the Columbia aquifer) and the underlying glauconitic sands of the upper Aquia Formation (the Aquia aquifer). The lower 6 to 9 meters of the Aquia Formation is a low-permeability silt-clay with abundant glauconite. The Aquia confining layer underlies the Columbia-Aquia surficial aquifer throughout the study area. The sediment redox transition, identified in cores, that occurs in the upper 0.5 to 1 meter of the Aquia confining layer is thought to be a site for subsurface denitrification of ground water. The first confined aquifer is composed of the glauconitic sands in the upper 9 to 11 meters of the Hornerstown Formation. The Hornerstown aquifer is underlain by 10 to 15 meters of glauconitic silt-clay at the base of the Hornerstown Formation (the Hornerstown confining layer), and 5 meters of low-permeability clay in the underlying Severn Formation.

The Aquia and Hornerstown Formations dip and thicken to the southeast, and the Aquia confining layer subcrops shallowly (within 5 meters of the land surface) in a band that strikes southwest to northeast across the northern edge of the study area. The surficial aquifer is very thin (generally less than 5 meters) north of Morgan Creek, and the alluvial valley of Morgan Creek has incised into the top of the Aquia confining layer. In contrast, the Aquia confining layer lies 22 meters below Chesterville Branch, and the surficial aquifer approaches 30 meters in thickness (away from the creek).

Chemically reduced iron sulfides and glauconite in the Aquia confining layer are likely substrates for denitrification of nitrate in ground water. Evidence from the dissolved concentrations of nitrate, sulfate, iron, argon, and nitrogen gas, and stable nitrogen isotopes support the interpretation that ground water flowing near the top of the Aquia confining layer, or through the confined Hornerstown aquifer, has undergone denitrification. This process appears to have the greatest effect on ground-water chemistry north of Morgan Creek, where the surficial aquifer is thin and a greater percentage of the ground water contacts the Aquia confining layer.

The base-flow discharges of total nitrogen from the two watersheds are of similar magnitude, although Chesterville Branch has somewhat higher loads (29,000 kilograms of nitrogen per year) than Morgan Creek (20,000 kilograms of nitrogen per year), although Morgan Creek has a larger drainage area and a greater discharge of water. The base-flow yield of nitrogen (load per unit area) in Chesterville Branch (median of 0.058 grams per second per square kilometer at the outlet) is more than twice that of Morgan Creek (median of 0.022 grams per second per square kilometer at the outlet), reflecting the higher concentration of nitrate in ground water discharging to Chesterville Branch. Total nitrogen concentrations tend to decrease downstream in Chesterville Branch and increase downstream in Morgan Creek. The downstream trend in Chesterville Branch may be affected by instream nitrogen uptake and denitrification, and an increasing proportion of older, denitrified ground water in downstream discharge. The downstream trends in Morgan Creek may be affected by inflow from tributaries, downstream changes in the source of discharge water, and downstream changes in the riparian zone, which could affect the processes and degree of denitrification.

Although these two watersheds appear to have landscape features (such as topography, land use, and soils) that would produce similar nitrogen discharges, a more detailed examination of landscape features indicates that Chesterville Branch has soils that are slightly better drained, tributary stream outlets at higher altitudes, and a slightly higher percentage of agricultural land. All of these factors have been related to higher nitrogen yields. Nonetheless, most of the data support the interpretation that hydrostratigraphy has the greatest effect in producing the difference in nitrogen yields between the two watersheds.

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Hydrogeologic framework, ground-water geochemistry, and assessment of nitrogen yield from base flow in two agricultural watersheds, Kent County, Maryland
Series number EPA/600/R-02/008
Year Published 2002
Language English
Publisher U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Publisher location Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s) National Research Program - Eastern Branch, Toxic Substances Hydrology Program
Description 93 p.
Country United States
State Maryland
County Kent County
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