The first documented analysis of nitrate concentrations for ground water in the unconfined aquifer was done in 1936. This valleywide investigation indicated that nitrate concentrations were 0.3 milligram per liter or less in water-quality samples from 38 wells completed in the unconfined aquifer. A valleywide study conducted in the late 1940's documented the first occurrences of nitrate concentrations greater than 3 mg/L. Up to this time, soil fertility was maintained primarily through the use of cattle and (or) sheep manure and crop rotation. Subsequent valleywide studies have documented several occurrences of elevated nitrate concentrations in the unconfined aquifer in a localized, intensively cultivated area north of the Rio Grande. The nitrate concentrations in water appear to have changed in response to increasing use of commercial inorganic fertilizers after the mid-1940's.
A 1993 valleywide study evaluated the potential health risk associated with elevated nitrate concentrations in domestic water supplies. Water-quality samples from 14 percent of the wells sampled contained nitrate concentrations greater than 10 milligrams per liter. Most of the samples that contained concentrations greater than 10 milligrams per liter were collected from wells located in the intensively cultivated area north of the Rio Grande.
During the 1990's, several local, small-scale, and field-scale investigations were conducted in the intensively cultivated area north of the Rio Grande. These studies identified spatial and temporal variations in nitrate concentration and evaluated the effectiveness of using shallow monitoring wells to determine nitrate leaching. Variations in nitrate concentration were attributed, in part, to seasonal recharge of the aquifer by surface water with low nitrate concentrations. Shallow monitoring wells were effective for determining the amount of nitrate leached, but because of the amount of residual nitrate in the soil from previous seasons, were ineffective in evaluating variations in the amount of nitrate leaching associated with differences in application rates. It was concluded that irrigation practices have the greatest effect on leaching of nitrate to the aquifer. Management tools, such as irrigation scheduling, center-pivot sprinkler systems, soil and ground-water nitrogen credits, and cultivation of cover and winter crops, are being used to help maintain crop quality and yields while minimizing the potential of leaching and reducing residual nitrogen left in the soil.
Review of available data from previous studies indicates that most of the sampled wells with elevated nitrate concentrations are located in the intensively cultivated area north of the Rio Grande. This area represents about 10 percent of the San Luis Valley and approximately 35 percent of the crop and pasture land in the valley. The area where nitrate concentrations exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking water maximum contaminant level represents about 150 square miles or 5 percent of the valley.
Aquifer vulnerability to and contamination by pesticides was not evaluated until the 1990's. Risk analyses indicated that selected pesticides can pose a contamination threat to an unconfined aquifer in areas consisting primarily of sandy loam soil; sandy loam soils are common in the San Luis Valley. Water-quality samples collected from some wells during 1990 and 1993 indicated trace- to low-level pesticide contamination. The occurrence of pesticides was infrequent and isolated.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Nitrate concentrations, 1936-99, and pesticide concentrations, 1990-99, in the unconfined aquifer in the San Luis Valley, Colorado