In October 1985 the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), through the National Irrigation Water Quality Program (NIWQP), began a series of field investigations at 26 areas in the Western United States to determine whether irrigation drainage has had harmful effects on fish, wildlife, and humans or has reduced beneficial uses of water. In 1992 NIWQP initiated the Data Synthesis Project to evaluate data collected during the field investigations. Geologic, climatologic, and hydrologic data were evaluated and water, sediment, and biota from the 26 areas were analyzed to identify commonalities and dominant factors that result in irrigation-induced contamination of water and biota.
Data collected for the 26 area investigations have been compiled and merged into a common data base. The structure of the data base is designed to enable assessment of relations between contaminant concentrations in water, sediment, and biota. The data base is available to the scientific community through the World Wide Web at URL http://www.usbr.gov/niwqp. Analysis of the data base for the Data Synthesis included use of summary statistics, factor analysis, and logistic regression. A Geographic Information System was used to store and analyze spatially oriented digital data such as land use, geology and evaporation rates.
In the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) study areas, samples of water, bottom sediment, and biota were collected for trace-element and pesticide analysis. Contaminants most commonly associated with irrigation drainage were identified by comparing concentrations in water with established criteria. For surface water, the criteria used were typically chronic criteria for the protection of freshwater aquatic life. Because ground water can discharge to the surface where wildlife can be exposed to it, the criteria used for ground water were both the maximum contaminant levels (MCL's) for drinking water and the chronic criteria for the protection of freshwater aquatic life.
Data collected by the NIWQP studies indicated that, in surface water, filtered and unfiltered samples had nearly the same concentrations of arsenic, boron, molybdenum, and selenium for concentrations greater than about 10 micrograms per liter. Therefore, in this concentration range, filtered concentrations can be directly compared to biological-effect levels developed for unfiltered samples. In the range of 1 to 10 micrograms per liter there may be a tendency for unfiltered arsenic concentrations to be greater than filtered concentrations. For selenium, however, the data suggest differences from equality in that range result from analytical imprecision and not a general tendency for unfiltered concentrations to be greater than filtered concentrations. This relation may not be true in lentic, nutrient-rich waters because in such settings algae can bioaccumulate large amounts of selenium and other trace elements.
Selenium was the trace element in surface water that most commonly exceeded chronic criteria for the protection of freshwater aquatic life; more than 40 percent of the selenium concentrations in surface-water samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) aquatic-life chronic criterion (5 micrograms per liter). In 12 of the 26 areas at least 25 percent of the surface water-samples had selenium concentrations that either equaled or exceeded the chronic criterion (5 micrograms per liter). More than 28 percent of boron concentrations and almost 17 percent of the molybdenum concentrations exceeded the aquatic life criteria established by the State of California (550 and 19 micrograms per liter, respectively). In ground water, more than 22 percent of the arsenic concentrations and more than 35 percent of the selenium concentrations exceeded the MCL (10 and 50 micrograms per liter, respectively). Few samples of uranium in surface water exceeded a criterion for the protection of aquatic life (300 micrograms per liter), but 44 percent