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Groundwater quality, age, and susceptibility and vulnerability to nitrate contamination with linkages to land use and groundwater flow, Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin, Colorado, 2013

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5020

Prepared in cooperation with Cherokee Metropolitan District, El Paso County, Meridian Service Metropolitan District, Mountain View Electric Association, Upper Black Squirrel Creek Groundwater Management District, Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District, Colorado State Land Board, Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the stakeholders represented in the Groundwater Quality Study Committee of El Paso County
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https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20165020

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Abstract

The Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin is located about 25 kilometers east of Colorado Springs, Colorado. The primary aquifer is a productive section of unconsolidated deposits that overlies bedrock units of the Denver Basin and is a critical resource for local water needs, including irrigation, domestic, and commercial use. The primary aquifer also serves an important regional role by the export of water to nearby communities in the Colorado Springs area. Changes in land use and development over the last decade, which includes substantial growth of subdivisions in the Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin, have led to uncertainty regarding the potential effects to water quality throughout the basin. In response, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with Cherokee Metropolitan District, El Paso County, Meridian Service Metropolitan District, Mountain View Electric Association, Upper Black Squirrel Creek Groundwater Management District, Woodmen Hills Metropolitan District, Colorado State Land Board, and Colorado Water Conservation Board, and the stakeholders represented in the Groundwater Quality Study Committee of El Paso County conducted an assessment of groundwater quality and groundwater age with an emphasis on characterizing nitrate in the groundwater.

Groundwater-quality samples were collected from 50 randomly selected wells between May and June 2013. The samples were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, dissolved gases, tritium (3H), chlorofluorocarbons (CFC-11, CFC-12, and CFC-113), and fuel products (such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes). None of the groundwater samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) National Primary Drinking Water Regulations for primary maximum contaminant levels (MCL) for major ions. Secondary maximum contaminant levels, which are not health concerns and affect mainly taste, color, or odor of the water, were observed in rare instances for pH (2 samples), chloride (1 sample), iron (3 samples), and manganese (8 samples). The secondary maximum contaminant level for total dissolved solids was also exceeded for two samples.

Nitrate (nitrite plus nitrate as nitrogen in groundwater) was elevated above the estimated background concentration of natural recharge waters of 1 milligram per liter (mg/L) in 44 of the 50 wells sampled and showed a median concentration of 5.4 mg/L. Nitrate concentrations were above the MCL of 10 mg/L in 5 of the 50 wells sampled and above half of the EPA MCL (5 mg/L) in 27 of the 50 wells sampled, which included samples above the MCL. Dissolved-oxygen concentrations exceeded 0.5 mg/L in 95 percent of reported values (40 of 42 samples) and exceeded 2.0 mg/L in 90 percent of reported values (38 of 42 samples). The oxidized conditions observed in most areas indicate that nitrate from fertilizers and animal or human waste was geochemically stable and could persist in the groundwater for decades or perhaps longer. A historical analysis of median nitrate concentrations over nearly three decades showed an increase in nitrate of approximately 1 mg/L from 4.3 to 5.4 mg/L, although the increase was not determined to be significantly different using nonparametric statistical methods.

Major-ion data indicate that groundwater representative of the primary aquifer was classified as calcium-sodium bicarbonate type water. Other water samples from wells located mainly along the periphery of the primary aquifer had cation-anion compositions consistent with distinct water sources, including groundwater contributions from the underlying bedrock aquifers. The areas with differentiable water sources were located mainly where alluvial deposits were thin and geologic contacts to the underlying bedrock aquifers were relatively shallow.

Nitrate concentrations in the groundwater were evaluated for relations to land use. An agricultural region was defined using a sequence of land satellite imagery. Groundwater flow directions interpreted from median water-table elevations measured from 2000 to 2013 were used in conjunction with cropland locations to define the agricultural region boundaries by encompassing potential pathways of nitrate transport in the groundwater from nitrogen-based fertilizers. A statistically significant higher median nitrate concentration was observed for areas inside the agricultural region (6.7 mg/L) compared to areas outside the agricultural region (2.3 mg/L), although median concentrations in both areas were below the MCL (10 mg/L). Median nitrate concentration was also significantly greater in land parcels with septic use (4.9 mg/L) compared to nonseptic parcels (1.7 mg/L). In general, agriculture or septic use was identified as the primary source of nitrate, depending on location, while commercial, county, grazing, and residential land uses were generally secondary sources of nitrate.

Apparent groundwater ages were estimated from chlorofluorocarbons (CFC-11, CFC-12, and CFC-113) and tritium (3H) data using models that assumed piston flow and binary mixing (dilution of a young component with old, tracer-free water). The mean and median groundwater ages were about 30 years and the standard deviation was 6 years, indicating that most groundwater in the primary aquifer was “young” water that had recharged to the aquifer over the last few decades (post-1950s). The median fraction of young water was about 71 percent, and the standard deviation was 29 percent. The remaining water predated the 1950s, which may have originated from deeper geologic formations or may represent slow moving groundwater within the primary aquifer. Some of the oldest groundwater ages (older than 30 years) were observed in the upper reaches of the aquifer to the northwest where the primary aquifer is thin and intersects bedrock, supporting the hypothesis of geochemically distinct groundwater entering the primary aquifer from below. Groundwater that had reached the central part of the aquifer from upgradient areas of the basin was variable in age because of differences in flow paths and travel velocities. The groundwater age analysis showed that current (2013) land-use practices could affect water quality over decades to come, and that responses to remedial actions could be slow, especially for constituents, such as nitrate, that are stable under oxidized conditions.

Fuel products (including acetone, benzene, diisopropyl ether, ethylbenzene, methyl acetate, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), methyl tert-pentyl ether, m- + p-xylene, o-xylene, tert-amyl alcohol, tert-butyl alcohol, tert-butyl ethyl ether, and toluene) were analyzed in groundwater from 49 of the 50 wells. Water from seven sites had detections for fuel compounds; all concentrations were below MCL. The results provided assurance of water quality and a valuable baseline to evaluate future trends of fuel constituents as the region is further developed.

Probability maps were developed from logistic regression models to examine the likelihood that nitrate concentrations in groundwater exceeded specified levels. Susceptibility analysis examined relations between mid-level (5.0 mg/L) nitrate concentrations and climatic, hydrologic, and geologic variables; the significant variables were identified as depth to groundwater, soil organic matter, and soil water storage to 25-centimeter (cm) depth. The vulnerability assessments included natural factors driving susceptibility but also human factors related to land use and septic use. Vulnerability to low-level (2.5 mg/L) nitrate was related to depth to groundwater, septic zoning, and soil organic matter. The results highlighted that septic zoning affected low-level nitrate concentrations. Vulnerability to mid-level (5.0 mg/L) nitrate was examined using all 50 samples and also with two data outliers removed, which showed relatively high nitrate concentrations but also anomalous water chemistry or were located beyond the primary study area. Vulnerability to mid-level (5.0 mg/L) nitrate using all 50 samples was related to depth to groundwater, land use, septic use within a 500-meter (m) radius, soil water storage to a 25-cm depth, soil organic matter, and whether a location was within the agricultural region. The mid-level (5.0 mg/L) vulnerability model using 48 samples (two outliers removed) produced the best overall fit and was related to the same variables as when using all samples except septic use. The results for mid-level vulnerability provided additional support that septic use was associated with low levels of nitrate in the groundwater. Soil properties and land use were identified as the main drivers of moderate nitrate concentrations. Probabilities of exceeding low-level nitrate concentrations were high in most areas with the lowest probabilities usually to the northwest along thin geologic deposits in the upper part of the basin.

The results of this investigation offer the foundational information needed for developing best management practices to mitigate nitrate contamination, basic concepts on water quality to aid public education, and information to guide regulatory measures if policy makers determine this is warranted. Science-based decision making will require continued monitoring and analysis of water quality in the future.

Suggested Citation

Wellman, T.P., and Rupert, M.G., 2016, Groundwater quality, age, and susceptibility and vulnerability to nitrate contamination with linkages to land use and groundwater flow, Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin, Colorado, 2013: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report, 2016–5020, 78 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/sir20165020.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Purpose and Scope
  • Description of Study Area
  • Methods of Investigation
  • Groundwater Flow and Historical Trends
  • Groundwater Quality and Groundwater Age
  • Susceptibility and Vulnerability to Nitrate
  • Future Needs
  • Summary
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Groundwater quality, age, and susceptibility and vulnerability to nitrate contamination with linkages to land use and groundwater flow, Upper Black Squirrel Creek Basin, Colorado, 2013
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
2016-5020
DOI:
10.3133/sir20165020
Year Published:
2016
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Colorado Water Science Center
Description:
viii, 77 p.
Country:
United States
State:
Colorado
County:
El Paso
Other Geospatial:
Black Squirrel Management District
Online Only (Y/N):
Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N):
N