Hydrograph separation was used to determine the base-flow component of streamflow for 148 sites sampled as part of the National Water-Quality Assessment program. Sites in the Southwest and the Northwest tend to have base-flow index values greater than 0.5. Sites in the Midwest and the eastern portion of the Southern Plains generally have values less than 0.5. Base-flow index values for sites in the Southeast and Northeast are mixed with values less than and greater than 0.5. Hypothesized flow paths based on relative scaling of soil and bedrock permeability explain some of the differences found in base-flow index. Sites in areas with impermeable soils and bedrock (areas where overland flow may be the primary hydrologic flow path) tend to have lower base-flow index values than sites in areas with either permeable bedrock or permeable soils (areas where deep groundwater flow paths or shallow groundwater flow paths may occur).
The percentage of nitrate load contributed by base flow was determined using total flow and base flow nitrate load models. These regression-based models were calibrated using available nitrate samples and total streamflow or base-flow nitrate samples and the base-flow component of total streamflow. Many streams in the country have a large proportion of nitrate load contributed by base flow: 40 percent of sites have more than 50 percent of the total nitrate load contributed by base flow. Sites in the Midwest and eastern portion of the Southern Plains generally have less than 50 percent of the total nitrate load contributed by base flow. Sites in the Northern Plains and Northwest have nitrate load ratios that generally are greater than 50 percent. Nitrate load ratios for sites in the Southeast and Northeast are mixed with values less than and greater than 50 percent. Significantly lower contributions of nitrate from base flow were found at sites in areas with impermeable soils and impermeable bedrock. These areas could be most responsive to nutrient management practices designed to reduce nutrient transport to streams by runoff. Conversely, sites with potential for shallow or deep groundwater contribution (some combination of permeable soils or permeable bedrock) had significantly greater contributions of nitrate from base flow. Effective nutrient management strategies would consider groundwater nitrate contributions in these areas.
Mean annual base-flow nitrate concentrations were compared to shallow-groundwater nitrate concentrations for 27 sites. Concentrations in groundwater tended to be greater than base-flow concentrations for this group of sites. Sites where groundwater concentrations were much greater than base-flow concentrations were found in areas of high infiltration and oxic groundwater conditions. The lack of correspondingly high concentrations in the base flow of the paired surface-water sites may have multiple causes. In some settings, there has not been sufficient time for enough high-nitrate shallow groundwater to migrate to the nearby stream. In these cases, the stream nitrate concentrations lag behind those in the shallow groundwater, and concentrations may increase in the future as more high-nitrate groundwater reaches the stream. Alternatively, some of these sites may have processes that rapidly remove nitrate as water moves from the aquifer into the stream channel.
Partitioning streamflow and nitrate load between the quick-flow and base-flow portions of the hydrograph coupled with relative scales of soil permeability can infer the importance of surface water compared to groundwater nitrate sources. Study of the relation of nitrate concentrations to base-flow index and the comparison of groundwater nitrate concentrations to stream nitrate concentrations during times when base-flow index is high can provide evidence of potential nitrate transport mechanisms. Accounting for the surface-water and groundwater contributions of nitrate is crucial to effective management and remediat