Residence times and nitrate transport in ground water discharging to streams in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed

Water-Resources Investigations Report 2003-4035

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One of the major water-quality problems in the Chesapeake Bay is an overabundance of nutrients from the streams and rivers that discharge to the Bay. Some of these nutrients are from nonpoint sources such as atmospheric deposition, agricultural manure and fertilizer, and septic systems. The effects of efforts to control nonpoint sources, however, can be difficult to quantify because of the lag time between changes at the land surface and the response in the base-flow (ground water) component of streams. To help resource managers understand the lag time between implementation of management practices and subsequent response in the nutrient concentrations in the base-flow component of streamflow, a study of ground-water discharge, residence time, and nitrate transport in springs throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed and in four smaller watersheds in selected hydrogeomorphic regions (HGMRs) was conducted. The four watersheds were in the Coastal Plain Uplands, Piedmont crystalline, Valley and Ridge carbonate, and Valley and Ridge siliciclastic HGMRs. A study of springs to estimate an apparent age of the ground water was based on analyses for concentrations of chlorofluorocarbons in water samples collected from 48 springs in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. Results of the analysis indicate that median age for all the samples was 10 years, with the 25th percentile having an age of 7 years and the 75th percentile having an age of 13 years. Although the number of samples collected in each HGMR was limited, there did not appear to be distinct differences in the ages between the HGMRs. The ranges were similar between the major HGMRs above the Fall Line (modern to about 50 years), with only two HGMRs of small geographic extent (Piedmont carbonate and Mesozoic Lowland) having ranges of modern to about 10 years. The median values of all the HGMRs ranged from 7 to 11 years. Not enough samples were collected in the Coastal Plain for comparison. Spring samples showed slightly younger water under wet conditions than under dry conditions. The apparent age of water from wells, springs, and other ground-water discharge points in the four targeted watersheds was modern to 60 years, which was similar to the apparent ages from the spring study. In the Pocomoke River Watershed in the Coastal Plain Uplands HGMR, the apparent age of ground-water samples ranged from 0 to 60 years; the ages in the vicinity of the streams ranged from 0 to 23 years. The apparent ages of ground water in the Polecat Creek Watershed in the Piedmont crystalline HGMR ranged from 2 to 30 years. The apparent ages of water from wells in the Muddy Creek Watershed in the Valley and Ridge carbonate HGMR ranged from 10 to 20 years (except for a single sample that was 45 years). The ages in the East Mahantango Creek Watershed in the Valley and Ridge siliciclastic HGMR ranged from 0 to 50 years. The distribution in apparent age of water from wells in the targeted watersheds, however, generally is older than that for water from the springs. The median age of water from wells in the Muddy CreekWatershed, for example, was 15 years, compared to 11 years for the water from the springs in that watershed, and less than 10 years for water from all springs in the spring study. The similarity in the ranges in apparent age of water from the wells and from the springs shows that the samples from the targeted watersheds and springs have bracketed the range of apparent ages that would be expected in the shallow ground-water-flow systems throughout the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The apparent age of water from individual wells does not necessarily represent the entire distribution of ages of the discharging ground water, and it is this distribution of ages that affects the response of nutrient concentrations in stream base flow. Nutrient-reduction scenarios were modeled for two watersheds for which the distribution of apparent grou

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USGS Numbered Series
Residence times and nitrate transport in ground water discharging to streams in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
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U.S. Geological Survey
Contributing office(s):
Pennsylvania Water Science Center
xiv, 201 p. : ill. (some col.), maps (some col.) ; 28 cm.