An assessment of ground-water quality in the northern High Plains aquifer was completed during 1997 and 2002-04. Ground-water samples were collected at 192 low-capacity, primarily domestic wells in four major hydrogeologic units of the northern High Plains aquifer-Ogallala Formation, Eastern Nebraska, Sand Hills, and Platte River Valley. Each well was sampled once, and water samples were analyzed for physical properties and concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus compounds, pesticides and pesticide degradates, dissolved solids, major ions, trace elements, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), radon, and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Tritium and microbiology were analyzed at selected sites. The results of this assessment were used to determine the current water-quality conditions in this subregion of the High Plains aquifer and to relate ground-water quality to natural and human factors affecting water quality.
Water-quality analyses indicated that water samples rarely exceeded established U.S. Environmental Protection Agency public drinking-water standards for those constituents sampled; 13 of the constituents measured or analyzed exceeded their respective standards in at least one sample. The constituents that most often failed to meet drinking-water standards were dissolved solids (13 percent of samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Secondary Drinking-Water Regulation) and arsenic (8 percent of samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Maximum Contaminant Level). Nitrate, uranium, iron, and manganese concentrations were larger than drinking-water standards in 6 percent of the samples.
Ground-water chemistry varied among hydrogeologic units. Wells sampled in the Platte River Valley and Eastern Nebraska units exceeded water-quality standards more often than the Ogallala Formation and Sand Hills units. Thirty-one percent of the samples collected in the Platte River Valley unit had nitrate concentrations greater than the standard, 22 percent exceeded the manganese standard, 19 percent exceeded the sulfate standard, 26 percent exceeded the uranium standard, and 38 percent exceeded the dissolved-solids standard. In addition, 78 percent of samples had at least one detectable pesticide and 22 percent of samples had at least one detectable VOC. In the Eastern Nebraska unit, 30 percent of the samples collected had dissolved-solids concentrations larger than the standard, 23 percent exceeded the iron standard, 13 percent exceeded the manganese standard, 10 percent exceeded the arsenic standard, 7 percent exceeded the sulfate standard, 7 percent exceeded the uranium standard, and 7 percent exceeded the selenium standard. No samples exceeded the nitrate standard. Thirty percent of samples had at least one detectable pesticide compound and 10 percent of samples had at least one detectable VOC. In contrast, the Sand Hills and Ogallala Formation units had fewer detections of anthropogenic compounds and drinking-water exceedances. In the Sand Hills unit, 15 percent of the samples exceeded the arsenic standard, 4 percent exceeded the nitrate standard, 4 percent exceeded the uranium standard, 4 percent exceeded the iron standard, and 4 percent exceeded the dissolved-solids standard. Fifteen percent of samples had at least one pesticide compound detected and 4 percent had at least one VOC detected. In the Ogallala Formation unit, 6 percent of water samples exceeded the arsenic standard, 4 percent exceeded the dissolved-solids standard, 3 percent exceeded the nitrate standard, 2 percent exceeded the manganese standard, 1 percent exceeded the iron standard, 1 percent exceeded the sulfate standard, and 1 percent exceeded the uranium standard. Eight percent of samples collected in the Ogallala Formation unit had at least one pesticide detected and 6 percent had at least one VOC detected. Differences in ground-water chemistry among the hydrogeologic units were attributed to variable depth to water, depth of the well screen below the water table, reduction-oxidation conditions, ground-water residence time, interactions with surface water, composition of aquifer sediments, extent of cropland, extent of irrigated land, and fertilizer application rates.