The National Water-Quality Assessment is based on intensive investigations of stream and ground-water quality in selected major hydrologic basins (study units) of the United States. One objective of the national assessment is to comparatively evaluate water-quality conditions within and among the different study units. Methods were developed to compare the water-quality conditions of 20 study units that were studied during 1992-1995. Two approaches were taken: (1) water-quality conditions for each study unit were ranked in relation to the findings for all study units, and (2) water-quality conditions for each study unit were compared to established criteria for the protection of human health and aquatic life.
Separate rankings were developed for several major characteristics of water quality by using selected combinations of measured values for individual constituents or properties. The water-quality characteristics that were evaluated for streams were nutrients and pesticides in water, organochlorine pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls in bed sediment and tissue, semivolatile organic compounds and trace elements in bed sediment, fish community degradation, and stream habitat degradation. The water-quality characteristics that were evaluated for ground water were nitrate, pesticides, volatile organic compounds, dissolved solids, and radon. The water-quality rankings are relative strictly to the distribution of conditions measured at sampling sites included in developing the method. Sites in the first 20 National Water-Quality Assessment study units include a broad range of environmental settings, but are not a statistically representative sample of the Nation. > To supplement the relative rankings, established water-quality criteria were used to indicate where particular constituents may have adverse effects, and thus merit further investigation. Established water-quality criteria, which provide consistent benchmarks for national comparisons of individual constituents, were selected from a variety of sources and applied to specific constituents in the specific medium (water or sediment) appropriate for each criterion.