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Spatial and temporal variation of stream chemistry associated with contrasting geology and land-use patterns in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—Summary of results from Smith Creek, Virginia; Upper Chester River, Maryland; Conewago Creek, Pennsylvania; and Difficult Run, Virginia, 2010–2013

Scientific Investigations Report 2016-5093

Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chesapeake Bay Program
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https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20165093

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Abstract

Despite widespread and ongoing implementation of conservation practices throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, water quality continues to be degraded by excess sediment and nutrient inputs. While the Chesapeake Bay Program has developed and maintains a large-scale and long-term monitoring network to detect improvements in water quality throughout the watershed, fewer resources have been allocated for monitoring smaller watersheds, even though water-quality improvements that may result from the implementation of conservation practices are likely to be first detected at smaller watershed scales.

In 2010, the U.S. Geological Survey partnered with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to initiate water-quality monitoring in four selected small watersheds that were targeted for increased implementation of conservation practices. Smith Creek watershed is an agricultural watershed in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia that is dominated by cattle and poultry production, and the Upper Chester River watershed is an agricultural watershed on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that is dominated by row-cropping activities. The Conewago Creek watershed is an agricultural watershed in southeastern Pennsylvania that is characterized by mixed agricultural activities. The fourth watershed, Difficult Run, is a suburban watershed in northern Virginia that is dominated by medium density residential development. The objective of this study was to investigate spatial and temporal variations in water chemistry and suspended sediment in these four relatively small watersheds that represent a range of land-use patterns and underlying geology to (1) characterize current water-quality conditions in these watersheds, and (2) identify the dominant sources, sinks, and transport processes in each watershed.

The general study design involved two components. The first included intensive routine water-quality monitoring at an existing streamgage within each study area (including continuous water-quality monitoring as well as discrete water-quality sampling) to develop a detailed understanding of the temporal and hydrologic variability in stream chemistry and sediment transport in each watershed. The second component involved extensive water-quality monitoring at various sites throughout each watershed to develop a detailed understanding of spatial patterns. Both components were used to improve understanding of sources and transport processes affecting stream chemistry, including nutrients and suspended sediments, and their implications for detecting long-term trends related to best management practices. This report summarizes the results of monitoring that was performed from April 2010 through September 2013.


Individual Small Watershed Summaries

Summaries for each of the four small watersheds are presented below. Each watershed has a more descriptive and detailed section in the report, but these summaries may be particularly useful for some watershed managers and stakeholders desiring slightly less technical detail.


Smith Creek

Smith Creek is a 105.39-mi2 watershed within the Shenandoah Valley that drains to the North Fork Shenandoah River. The long-term Smith Creek base-flow index is 72.3 percent, indicating that on average, approximately 72 percent of Smith Creek flow was base flow, which suggests that Smith Creek streamflow is dominated by groundwater discharge rather than stormwater runoff. A series of cluster and principal components analyses demonstrated that the majority of the variability in Smith Creek water quality could be attributed to hydrologic and seasonal variability. Statistically significant positive correlations with flow were observed for turbidity, suspended sediments, total nitrogen, ammonium, orthophosphate, iron, total phosphorus, and the ratio of calcium to magnesium. Statistically significant inverse correlations with flow were observed for specific conductance, magnesium, δ15N of nitrate, pH, bicarbonate, calcium, and δ18O of nitrate. Of particular note, flow and nitrate were not statistically significantly correlated, likely because of the relatively complex concentration-discharge relationship observed in continuous and discrete datasets. Statistically significant seasonal patterns were observed for numerous water-quality constituents: water temperature, turbidity, orthophosphate, total phosphorus, suspended-sediment concentration, and silica were higher during the warm season, but pH, dissolved oxygen, and sulfate were higher during the cool season. Surrogate regression models were developed to compute sediment and nutrient loads in Smith Creek using the continuous water-quality monitors. The mean Smith Creek in-stream sediment load was approximately 6,900 tons per year, with nearly 90 percent of the sediment load over the 3-year study period contributed during the eight largest storm events during that period. The Smith Creek total phosphorus load was approximately 21,000 pounds of phosphorus per year, with the majority of the load contributed during stormflow periods, although a substantial phosphorus load still occurs during base-flow conditions. The Smith Creek total nitrogen load was approximately 400,000 pounds per year, with total nitrogen accumulation less dominated by stormflow contributions (as was the case for sediment and total phosphorus) and strongly affected by base-flow export of nitrogen from the basin.

Extensive water-quality monitoring throughout the Smith Creek watershed revealed how the complex geology and hydrology interacted to result in variable water chemistry. During relatively dry and low base-flow periods, much of the discharge in Smith Creek was contributed by a single dominant spring—Lacey Spring. During wetter base-flow periods, the flows in Smith Creek were largely generated by a mixture of headwater springs and forested mountain tributaries with very different geochemical composition. The headwater springs generally issued from limestone bedrock and were characterized as having relatively high nitrate, specific conductance, calcium, and magnesium, as well as relatively low concentrations of phosphorus, ammonium, iron, and manganese. The undeveloped, high-gradient, forested mountain sites were generally characterized by low ionic strength waters with low nutrient concentrations. Nitrate isotope data from the limestone springs generally were consistent with manure-derived nitrogen sources (such as cattle and poultry), although the possibility of other mixed sources cannot be excluded. Nitrate isotope data from the undeveloped, high-gradient forested mountain sites were more consistent with nitrogen from undisturbed soils, atmospheric deposition, or nitrogen fixation. Regardless of the nitrogen source, oxygen isotope data indicate that the nitrate was largely a result of nitrification. Land-use data indicate that manure sources of nitrogen dominated watershed nitrogen inputs. Phosphorus sources were less well studied. The presence of a single point-source discharge near the town of New Market contributed the majority of the phosphorus to Smith Creek under base-flow conditions, but nonpoint sources of phosphorus dominated the loading to Smith Creek during stormflow periods.

Implementation of conservation practices increased in the Smith Creek watershed during the study period, and even though a broad range of practice types was implemented, the most common practices included stream fencing (for cattle exclusion), the development of nutrient management plans, conservation crop rotation, and the planting of cover crops. While the implementation of these conservation practices is encouraging, results indicate small increases in nitrate concentrations at the streamgage over the last 29 years, concurrent with small decreases in nitrate fluxes. It will likely be years before the cumulative effect of these practices can be detected in the Smith Creek water quality, and the magnitude of the effect of these conservation practices detected in Smith Creek will depend largely on whether nutrient loading (of manure and commercial fertilizer) is reduced over time.


Upper Chester River

The Upper Chester River watershed includes the 36-square-mile (mi2) watershed area around several nontidal tributaries that drain into the tidal Chester River. The streamgage is on Chesterville Branch, the largest nontidal tributary (approximately 6.12 mi2) and is the site for continuous water-quality monitoring for this project. The base-flow index at Chesterville Branch is about 72 percent and indicates that, as in most of the Coastal Plain, groundwater is the greatest contributor to streamflow. As such, more than 90 percent of the nitrogen in the stream is in the form of nitrate from groundwater. Continuous and discrete data collected at Chesterville Branch show the effects of streamflow and season on water quality. Significantly positive correlations with flow were observed for ammonium, dissolved and total phosphorus, sediment, and turbidity as runoff carried these constituents from the land surface into Chesterville Branch. Other constituents that increased significantly with flow include potassium, sulfate, iron, and manganese, which are likely contributed from near-stream areas and ponds with high organic-matter content. Total nitrogen, pH, and specific conductance, along with chemical constituents associated with groundwater inputs including nitrate, calcium, ratio of calcium to magnesium, silica, bicarbonate, and sodium, were negatively correlated with flow because concentrations of these constituents were diluted by runoff.

Seasonal differences in water chemistry, which are most likely related to increased biologic effects on the uptake and release of chemicals in the stream and near-stream areas, also were observed. Water temperature, orthophosphate, δ15N of nitrate, bicarbonate, sodium, and the ratio of sodium to chloride were higher during the warm season, and dissolved oxygen, total nitrogen, nitrate, magnesium, sulfate, and manganese were higher during the cool season.

Surrogate-regression models developed by using continuous water-quality data showed that the annual sediment load for the 2013 water year was about 2,600 tons, with more than 90 percent of this sediment contributed during two storms. The total phosphorus load in 2013 was about 13,000 pounds with more than 90 percent contributed during the same two storms as sediment. The load of total nitrogen, 140,000 pounds, accumulated steadily throughout the 2013 water year as nitrate in groundwater continuously discharged into the stream. The same two large storms that contributed 90 percent of the suspended-sediment and total phosphorus load only contributed about 20 percent of the annual total nitrogen load.

Extensive water-quality monitoring of stream base flow throughout the Upper Chester River watershed identified how differences in land use and hydrogeology affected water chemistry. In parts of the watershed with well-drained soil and thick sandy aquifer sediments, concentrations of nitrate and other chemicals associated with fertilizer and lime application increased in streams as agricultural land use increased. More than 90 percent of the nitrogen in streams from these areas was in the form of nitrate, and concentrations ranged from about 5 milligrams per liter (mg/L) to 8 mg/L as nitrogen in the two largest tributaries. Stream nitrate concentrations were about 1 mg/L as nitrogen where soils were more poorly drained, the surficial aquifer sediments were thinner, and forests and wetlands were more widespread than agriculture. Nitrate isotope data were consistent with inorganic fertilizers ± atmospheric deposition and N2 fixation as sources of nitrogen, and with nitrification as the dominant nitrate-forming process. Nitrate reduction was indicated by elevated δ15N and δ18O values in some samples from streams draining watersheds with poorly drained soils. An analysis of land-use data and SPARROW modeling input data attributed almost 90 percent of the nitrogen sources in the Upper Chester River watershed to inorganic fertilizer and fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, which is in agreement with the isotopic characteristics of nitrate in this watershed. Local sources of manure are limited in this area. Total phosphorus concentrations during base flow ranged from below detection to about 0.2 mg/L. Stream phosphorus concentrations during base flow were generally lower than those measured during storms because most phosphorus transport likely occurs as phosphorus attached to sediment particles during runoff. Because manure is not widely used in this area, the major source of phosphorus is likely fertilizer.

The implementation of conservation practices in the Upper Chester River watershed increased substantially during the study period, with a total implementation of 1,194 U.S. Department of Agriculture-compliant practices. The most frequently used practices were oriented towards nutrient and sediment control, including cover crops, nutrient management planning, conservation crop rotation, conservation tillage, and irrigation management. The current Chesapeake Bay model for this area predicts that implementation of best management practices should result in a 13-percent decrease in overall delivery of nitrogen to the Upper Chester River. Because most nitrogen travels through the groundwater system for years to decades before being discharged to streams, the time period of monitoring was not sufficient to see the effects of these practices on water quality. The magnitude of the effect that may eventually be detected will depend on the degree to which nitrate leaching into the groundwater system is reduced over time. Loadings of phosphorus and sediment are primarily transported during large runoff events and are difficult to control and analyze for trends because of their timing and episodic nature.


Conewago Creek

Conewago Creek has two primary monitoring locations—one near the middle of the 47-mi2 watershed and the other near the outlet just upstream of the Susquehanna River. The base-flow index was 47.3 percent for 2012–2013, indicating that on average, approximately 53 percent of the streamflow in Conewago Creek exited the watershed as surface flow, which suggests that the stormwater runoff was somewhat greater than groundwater discharge (base flow). A series of cluster and principal components analyses demonstrated that the majority of the variability in the Conewago Creek water quality could be attributed to hydrologic and seasonal variability. Statistically significant positive correlations with flow were observed at both monitoring sites for ammonium, total phosphorus, orthophosphate, iron, and manganese; additionally, at the upstream monitoring station, total nitrogen demonstrated a statistically significant positive correlation with flow. Statistically significant inverse correlations with flow were observed at both sites for water temperature, specific conductance (at the downstream site only), sulfate, chloride, calcium, and magnesium. Statistically significant seasonal patterns were observed for several water-quality constituents. Water temperature, phosphorus (upstream site only), and orthophosphate were higher during the warm season, and nitrate and total nitrogen (upstream site only) were higher during the cool season.

Surrogate regression models were developed to compute sediment and nutrient load in Conewago Creek by using the continuous water-quality monitors and water-quality samples. Conewago Creek sediment load was approximately 9,900 tons in 2012 and approximately 18,900 tons in 2013, with nearly 80 percent of the sediment load in 2013 contributed by the three largest storm events. Annual total nitrogen loads could not be estimated due to poor model performance. The addition of continued monitoring or a continuously recording nitrate sensor could improve estimates of total nitrogen loads. During 2012 and 2013, phosphorus loads in Conewago Creek were approximately 50,000 pounds in each year.

Combining data from one high-flow synoptic sampling with the data from routine sampling revealed how the geology and hydrology interact to result in variable water chemistry throughout the Conewago Creek watershed. The areas above the upstream gage in the headwaters are generally underlain by forested non-carbonate bedrock and are characterized by relatively low nitrate, specific conductance, calcium, and magnesium, as well as relatively low concentrations of phosphorus, ammonium, iron, and manganese. The more developed, agricultural areas below the upstream site were generally characterized by higher ionic strength waters with higher nutrient and metal concentrations. An analysis of land-use data and SPAtially Referenced Regressions On Watershed (SPARROW) modeling data indicates that manure sources of nitrogen dominate the input of nitrogen to the watershed.

Implementation of conservation practices increased in the Conewago Creek watershed during the study period, and while a broad range of practice types were implemented, the most common practices included residue and tillage management, cover crops, nutrient management, terracing, and stream fencing (for animal exclusion or bank restoration). While the implementation of these conservation practices is encouraging, the cumulative effects of these practices probably will not be detected in Conewago Creek water quality for several years. The magnitude of the effects of these conservation practices on water quality in Conewago Creek will depend largely on the extent to which nutrient loading (septic, manure, and commercial fertilizer) and sediment-producing activities are reduced over time.


Difficult Run

The Difficult Run watershed is a 57.82-mi2 watershed that drains to the Potomac River. The long-term Difficult Run base-flow index (from 1936 to 2010) was 57.9, indicating that approximately 58 percent of streamflow exited the watershed as base flow and 42 percent as stormflow; however, with continued development and urbanization of the watershed, the base-flow index has decreased to 50 percent during the last 20 years. This base-flow index was less than those of the other watersheds evaluated in this study, likely because the Difficult Run watershed largely is underlain by crystalline piedmont metamorphic rocks and has a greater proportion of impervious urban land cover. A series of cluster and principal components analyses indicated that most of the variability in Difficult Run water quality could be attributed to hydrologic variability and seasonality. Statistically significant positive correlations with flow were observed for turbidity, dissolved oxygen, suspended sediments, ammonium, orthophosphate, iron, and total phosphorus. Statistically significant inverse correlations with flow were observed for water temperature, pH, specific conductance, bicarbonate, calcium, magnesium, nitrate, δ15N of nitrate, and silica. Statistically significant seasonal patterns were observed for numerous water-quality constituents: water temperature, ammonium, orthophosphate, and δ15N of nitrate were higher during the warm season, and dissolved oxygen, nitrate, and manganese were higher during the cool season. Surrogate regression models were developed to compute sediment and nutrient loading rates. The Difficult Run sediment load was approximately 8,000 tons per year, with greater than 95 percent of the sediment load in the 2013 water year contributed by the seven largest storm events. The total phosphorus load in Difficult Run was approximately 14,000 pounds of phosphorus per year, with the majority of the load contributed during stormflow periods. The total nitrogen load in Difficult Run is estimated to have been approximately 140,000 pounds per year, with total nitrogen accumulation less dominated by stormflow contributions than that of phosphorus and strongly affected by base-flow export of nitrogen from the basin.

Extensive water-quality monitoring throughout the Difficult Run watershed revealed relatively uniform generation of flow per unit of watershed area, as well as spatial variation in water quality that is strongly related to land-use activities. Elevated nitrate concentrations were observed in a subset of monitoring sites that are inversely correlated with population density and positively correlated to the septic system density within each subwatershed. The majority of the elevated nitrate concentrations for these sites are hypothesized to be caused by nitrate leaching from septic systems, more so than homeowner fertilizer usage among these subwatersheds that have lower population densities than other parts of the watershed. Nitrate isotope data, temporal patterns in the water-quality data, mass-balance computations, and a separate land-use analysis all generally indicate that leachate from septic systems was the likely source of the elevated nitrate. Another group of water-quality sites have relatively low nitrogen concentrations, are located in areas that are served by city sewer lines, and have experienced stream restoration activities. A final group of sites drained the areas with the highest imperviousness and had strongly elevated specific conductance, chloride, and sodium, which were likely caused by a combination of road salting and other anthropogenic sources draining these urbanized areas in the watershed. A fourth group of sites represents a mixture of water sources and had water quality similar to that at the Difficult Run streamgage. Analysis of the nitrate isotope data generally indicates a broad range of composition indicative of mixed natural and anthropogenic nitrogen sources. Implementation of conservation practices increased in the Difficult Run watershed during the study period, and while a broad range of practice types was implemented, the most common practices included stream restoration. While the implementation of these conservation practices is encouraging, the cumulative effect of these practices probably will not be detected in Difficult Run water quality for several years.

Suggested Citation

Hyer, K.E., Denver, J.M., Langland, M.J., Webber, J.S., Böhlke, J.K., Hively, W.D., and Clune, J.W., 2016, Spatial and temporal variation of stream chemistry associated with contrasting geology and land-use patterns in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—Summary of results from Smith Creek, Virginia; Upper Chester River, Maryland; Conewago Creek, Pennsylvania; and Difficult Run, Virginia, 2010–2013: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2016–5093, 211 p., http://dx.doi.org/10.3133/sir20165093.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

ISSN: 2328-031X (print)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Study Approach and Methods
  • Smith Creek Watershed Water-Quality Characterization
  • Upper Chester River Watershed Water-Quality Characterization
  • Conewago Creek Watershed Water-Quality Characterization
  • Difficult Run Watershed Water-Quality Characterization
  • Comparison of Water-Quality Patterns Among Study Watersheds
  • Future Directions
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
  • Appendix 1

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Spatial and temporal variation of stream chemistry associated with contrasting geology and land-use patterns in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—Summary of results from Smith Creek, Virginia; Upper Chester River, Maryland; Conewago Creek, Pennsylvania; and Difficult Run, Virginia, 2010–2013
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
2016-5093
DOI:
10.3133/sir20165093
Year Published:
2016
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Virginia Water Science Center
Description:
Report: xix, 211 p.
First page:
1
Last page:
211
Country:
United States
State:
Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia
Other Geospatial:
Conewago Creek watershed, Difficult Run watershed, Smith Creek watershed, Upper Chester River watershed
Online Only (Y/N):
N