Quality of Data From the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Network for Water Years 2013–17

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5116
By:  and 



Water samples from 122 sites in the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Network were collected in 2013–17 to document ambient water-quality conditions in surface water of the United States and to determine status and trends of loads and concentrations for nutrients, contaminants, and sediment to estuaries and streams. Quality-control (QC) samples collected in the field with environmental samples were combined with QC samples from laboratory processing to provide information and documentation about the quality of the environmental data.

Quality assurance for inorganic and organic compounds assessed in the National Water Quality Network includes collection of field blanks to determine contamination bias and field replicates to determine variability bias. No contamination bias was found for 6 of the 13 nutrient compounds analyzed, and some potential contamination bias for some years was found for the other 7 nutrient compounds. Contamination bias was not found for carbon compounds or ultraviolet-absorbance measurements and was not assessed for sediment. All major ions and trace elements except potassium and lithium showed moderate contamination bias for at least 1 water year; generally, this bias was not at environmentally relevant concentrations. All compounds in the nutrient, carbon, and sediment group and in the major ions and trace elements group had low variability both in detection frequency and in concentration. Exceptions to this low variability were total particulate inorganic carbon and sediment for 2015, both of which are particulate substances with intrinsically high sampling variability.

The risk of contamination bias for pesticides in National Water Quality Network samples was low, as indicated by very few detections in field blanks. Sixteen pesticide compounds showed potential contamination bias based on unexpected detections in third-party blind spikes (false-positive results for compounds that are not included in the spike mixture of a sample, where the identity as a QC sample is unknown to the analyst), and 47 different compounds (out of 225 pesticide compounds) showed potential contamination bias from laboratory blanks. However, when timing and relative magnitudes of detections in blank samples, environmental samples, and benchmark concentrations are considered, most of this potential contamination is not relevant to interpretation of published pesticide results. Overall variability in detection frequency for pesticides from field replicates was low or moderate. Also based on field replicates, 55 pesticides had overall high variability in concentrations for at least 1 water year, although these assessments likely overestimate high variability.

At least 1 QC issue was found for 87 pesticides; however, most of the QC issues had no or little effect on the interpretation of environmental results because the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Laboratory addressed the QC issue before publishing the environmental results, environmental results were almost entirely nondetections, concentrations of environmental results were higher than potential contamination bias, or benchmark concentrations were orders of magnitude higher than all environmental results. Eight compounds affected by two QC issues had a benchmark less than 100 nanograms per liter and warranted careful consideration of timing and magnitude of QC results in relation to surface-water results before interpretive use.

Suggested Citation

Medalie, L., and Bexfield, L.M., 2020, Quality of data from the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Network for water years 2013–17: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5116, 21 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20205116.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Quality of Data for Nutrients, Carbon, and Sediment
  • Quality of Data for Major Ions and Trace Elements
  • Quality of Data for Pesticides
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Quality of data from the U.S. Geological Survey National Water Quality Network for water years 2013–17
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5116
DOI 10.3133/sir20205116
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) New England Water Science Center
Description Report: v, 21 p.; Data Releases; 9 Tables
Country United States
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
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