Carbonate aquifers are an important source of water in the United States; however, these aquifers can be particularly susceptible to contamination from the land surface. The U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program collected samples from wells and springs in 12 carbonate aquifers across the country during 1993-2005; water-quality results for 1,042 samples were available to assess the factors affecting ground-water quality. These aquifers represent a wide range of climate, land-use types, degrees of confinement, and other characteristics that were compared and evaluated to assess the effect of those factors on water quality. Differences and similarities among the aquifers were also identified. Samples were analyzed for major ions, radon, nutrients, 47 pesticides, and 54 volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Geochemical analysis helped to identify dominant processes that may contribute to the differences in aquifer susceptibility to anthropogenic contamination. Differences in concentrations of dissolved oxygen and dissolved organic carbon and in ground-water age were directly related to the occurrence of anthropogenic contaminants. Other geochemical indicators, such as mineral saturation indexes and calcium-magnesium molar ratio, were used to infer residence time, an indirect indicator of potential for anthropogenic contamination. Radon exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 300 picocuries per liter in 423 of 735 wells sampled, of which 309 were drinking-water wells.
In general, land use, oxidation-reduction (redox) status, and degree of aquifer confinement were the most important factors affecting the occurrence of anthropogenic contaminants. Although none of these factors individually accounts for all the variation in water quality among the aquifers, a combination of these characteristics accounts for the majority of the variation. Unconfined carbonate aquifers that had high percentages of urban or agricultural land, or a combination of both, had higher concentrations and higher frequency of detections for most of the anthropogenic contaminants than areas with other combinations of land use and degree of aquifer confinement. Redox status is an indicator of more recently recharged water and affects the fate of some contaminants.
Median concentrations of nitrate were highest in the Valley and Ridge and Piedmont aquifers and lowest in the Biscayne and Silurian-Devonian/Upper carbonate aquifers. Nitrate concentrations were significantly higher in unconfined aquifers than in confined aquifers and semiconfined/mixed confined aquifers (wells in aquifers with breached confining layers or wells open to both a confined and an unconfined aquifer). Water recharged after 1953 had significantly higher concentrations of nitrate than water recharged prior to 1953. Redox status was also a key factor affecting nitrate concentrations; in recently recharged waters, samples in oxic waters had significantly higher concentrations of nitrate than anoxic waters, regardless of land use in the area around the well. Samples from 54 wells (5 percent) exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency MCL of 10 mg/L for nitrate in drinking water. Most of the samples exceeding the drinking-water standard (52 samples, or 5 percent) were in domestic supply wells in agricultural areas. The Piedmont and Valley and Ridge aquifers had the largest number of samples (45) exceeding the MCL; in the remaining aquifers only 9 samples had concentrations of nitrate that exceeded the MCL (about 1 percent). None of the water recharged prior to 1953 and only a single sample from a confined aquifer had nitrate concentrations that exceeded 10 mg/L as N.
Wells were sampled for a minimum of 47 pesticides. Detection frequencies and comparisons varied depending on the assessment level used. At least 1 of the 47 pesticides was detected at 510 (50 percent) of the 1,027 sites where pestic
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Factors Affecting Water Quality in Selected Carbonate Aquifers in the United States,1993-2005