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Water-quality assessment of part of the upper Mississippi River basin, Minnesota and Wisconsin: Nitrogen and phosphorus in streams, streambed sediment, and ground water, 1971-94

Water-Resources Investigations Report 97-4107

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Abstract

Nitrogen and phosphorus in streams, streambed sediment, and ground water were summarized using data from Federal, state, and local agencies as part of an analysis of historical water-quality data for the Upper Mississippi River Basin study unit of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. The Upper Mississippi River Basin study unit encompasses the drainage of the Mississippi River from the source to the outlet of Lake Pepin. This report focuses on a 19,500-square-mile study area in the eastern part of the study unit. The study area included the part of the Upper Mississippi River Basin from Royalton, Minnesota, to the outlet of Lake Pepin, located near Red Wing, Minnesota; the Minnesota River Basin from Jordan, Minnesota, to the confluence with the Mississippi River; and the entire drainage basins of the St. Croix, Cannon, and Vermillion Rivers. The Twin Cities metropolitan area, with a population of approximately 2.3 million people, is located in the south-central part of the study area.

Fertilizers and livestock manure were the greatest sources of nitrogen and phosphorus applied to the land surface of the study unit. Approximately 60 percent of the fertilizer was applied to the Minnesota River Basin, which drains agricultural areas in the southern and western parts of the study unit.

Concentrations of total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus in streams, generally were greatest in the tributaries to the Mississippi River draining agricultural areas in the western and southern part of the study area. Concentrations of these constituents generally were least in tributaries draining forested land. The greatest total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations generally occurred during the spring and summer in streams draining agricultural areas and in the winter in streams draining forested areas. Total phosphorus concentrations generally were greatest in the spring and summer for all streams.

Total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus concentrations in the Mississippi River increased substantially downstream from the Minnesota River and downstream from wastewater discharges in the Twin Cities metropolitan area. Total ammonia and dissolved orthophosphate concentrations generally were greatest at sites on the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers downstream from wastewater discharges from the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

Total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations in streams generally were less than the Maximum Contaminant Level of 10 mg/L (as nitrogen) established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Total phosphorus concentrations in streams generally were greater than the 0.1 mg/L concentration recommended by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency at sites located in agricultural areas and on the Mississippi River downstream from its confluence with the Minnesota River.

Phosphorus and nitrogen yields were greatest in watersheds primarily draining agricultural land. The majority of the nitrogen and phosphorus loading to the Mississippi River was from the Minnesota River. In the Minnesota River, the nitrogen load primarily was total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen.

Despite increases in fertilizer usage during 1982-91, most stream sites outside of the Twin Cities metropolitan area had no temporal trends in total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen, total phosphorus, or dissolved orthophosphate concentrations for water years 1984-93. Most sites had a decrease in total ammonia nitrogen concentrations, possibly a result of improvements in wastewater treatment. In the Twin Cities metropolitan area, decreases in total ammonia concentrations in the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers coincided with increases in total nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations, probably a result of wastewater treatment plants initiating nitrification processes.

Nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations in ground water reflect land uses and hydrogeologic settings of major aquifers in the study area. Unconfined sand and gravel, buried sand and gravel, and the Prairie du Chien-Jordan were the aquifers most frequently sampled for nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen because they are the principal sources of ground water in the study area. The greatest nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations reported by Federal and state agencies, some exceeding the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Maximum Contaminant level of 10 mg/L by a factor of four, were in water from shallow wells in agricultural and mixed forested and agricultural areas. Water sampled from buried sand and gravel aquifers, which are more shielded from substances leaching from the land surface by layers of clay or till, generally had lower nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations than water from unconfined sand and gravel aquifers. Nitrite plus nitrate nitrogen concentrations in water samples from the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer were greatest in the Wisconsin part of the study area and in the vicinity of the Cannon River, where the aquifer is commonly unconfined, exposed at land surface, and overlain by agricultural or by mixed forested and agricultural land covers.

Dissolved phosphorus concentrations in ground water in the study area generally were near detection limits of 0.01 mg/L or lower, indicating that surface-water eutrophication from phosphorus may be more likely to occur from overland runoff of phosphorus compounds and from direct discharges of treated wastewater than from ground-water base flow. The greatest concentrations of dissolved phosphorus in ground water generally were detected in water samples from wells in urban portions of the study area.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Report
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Title:
Water-quality assessment of part of the upper Mississippi River basin, Minnesota and Wisconsin: Nitrogen and phosphorus in streams, streambed sediment, and ground water, 1971-94
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
97-4107
Year Published:
1997
Language:
English
Publisher:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Mounds View, MN
Contributing office(s):
Minnesota Water Science Center
Description:
viii, 61 p.
Country:
United States
State:
Minnesota, Wisconsin
Other Geospatial:
Upper Mississippi River Basin
Online Only (Y/N):
N
Additional Online Files (Y/N):
N