Nutrients in ground water and surface water of the United States; an analysis of data through 1992

Water-Resources Investigations Report 95-4031
By: , and 



Historical data on nutrient (nitrogen and phosphorus species) concentrations in ground-and surface-water samples were compiled from 20 study units of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program and 5 supplemental study areas. The resultant national retrospective data sets contained analyses of about 12,000 Found-water and more than 22,000 surface-water samples. These data were interpreted on regional and national scales by relating the distributions of nutrient concentrations to ancillary data, such as land use, soil characteristics, and hydrogeology, provided by local study-unit personnel. The information provided in this report on environmental factors that affect nutrient concentrations in ground and surface water can be used to identify areas of the Nation where the vulnerability to nutrient contamination is greatest. Nitrate was the nutrient of greatest concern in the historical ground-water data. It is the only nutrient that is regulated by a national drinking-water standard. Nitrate concentrations were significantly different in ground water affected by various land uses. Concentrations in about 16 percent of the samples collected in agricultural areas exceeded the drinking-water standard. However, the standard was exceeded in only about 1 percent of samples collected from public-supply wells. A variety of ancillary factors had significant relations to nitrate concentrations in ground water beneath agricultural areas. Concentrations generally were highest within 100 feet of the land surface. They were also higher in areas where soil and geologic characteristics promoted rapid movement of water to the aquifer. Elevated concentrations commonly occurred in areas underlain by permeable materials, such as carbonate bedrock or unconsolidated sand and gravel, and where soils are generally well drained. In areas where water movement is impeded, denitrification might lead to low concentrations of nitrate in the ground water. Low concentrations were also related to interspersion of pasture and woodland with cropland in agricultural areas. Elevated nitrate concentrations in areas of more homogeneous cropland probably were a result of intensive nitrogen fertilizer application on large tracts of land. Certain regions of the United States seemed more vulnerable to nitrate contamination of ground water in agricultural areas. Regions of greater vulnerability included parts of the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast. The well-drained soils, typical in these regions, have little capacity to hold water and nutrients; therefore, these soils receive some of the largest applications of fertilizer and irrigation in the Nation. The agricultural land is intensively cultivated for row crops, with little interspersion of pasture and woodland. Nutrient concentrations in surface water also were generally related to land use. Nitrate concentrations were highest in samples from sites downstream from agricultural or urban areas. However, concentrations were not as high as in ground water and rarely exceeded the drinking-water standard. Elevated concentrations of nitrate in surface water of the Northeastern United States might be related to large amounts of atmospheric deposition (acid rain). High concentrations in parts of the Midwest might be related to tile drainage of agricultural fields. Ammonia and phosphorus concentrations were highest downstream from urban areas. These concentrations generally were high enough to warrant concerns about toxicity to fish and accelerated eutrophication. Recent improvements in wastewater treatment have decreased ammonia concentrations downstream from some urban areas, but the result has been an increase in nitrate concentrations. Information on environmental factors that affect water quality is useful to identify drainage basins throughout the Nation with the greatest vulnerability for nutrient contamination and to delineate areas where ground-water or surface-water contamination is most likely to oc
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Nutrients in ground water and surface water of the United States; an analysis of data through 1992
Series title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number 95-4031
DOI 10.3133/wri954031
Edition -
Year Published 1995
Language ENGLISH
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey : Earth Science Information Center, Open-File Reports Section [distributor],
Description vii, 74 p. :ill., maps ;28 cm.
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