High concentrations of nitrate in both ground and surface water have been identified as a significant water-quality issue in the Lower Susquehanna River Basin. This report uses data collected by the National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program in the basin and compares nitrate concentrations found in ground water and surface water on both a spatial and temporal basis and relates nitrate concentrations to land use. Nitrate concentrations in the Lower Susquehanna River Basin in Pennsylvania and Maryland were higher in ground water than in surface water in agricultural areas underlain by carbonate bedrock and agricultural areas underlain by crystalline bedrock. Nitrate concentrations were higher in surface water than in ground water in urban areas underlain by carbonate bedrock. Nitrate concentrations also were higher in surface water than ground water in both agricultural and forested areas underlain by sandstone and shale. Nitrate concentrations in ground water vary in areas with different land use and bedrock type. Ground-water nitrate concentrations were highest in agricultural areas underlain by carbonate bedrock, where 45 percent of the samples exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter as N). Waters from 36 percent of the wells in agricultural areas underlain by crystalline bedrock also had nitrate concentrations greater than 10 mg/L. Nitrate concentrations in water from wells in urban areas underlain by carbonate bedrock and in forested and agricultural areas underlain by sandstone and shale seldom exceeded the MCL. Nitrate concentrations were generally higher in surface water in areas underlain by carbonate bedrock than in areas underlain by noncarbonate bedrock; however, when an agricultural area underlain by carbonate bedrock and an agricultural area underlain by sandstone and shale with similar manure application rates were compared, nitrate concentrations in surface water were not significantly different. A comparison of three agricultural areas underlain by carbonate bedrock shows that the manure application rate is strongly correlated with nitrate concentration. Nitrate concentrations in stream base flow at seven sites where samples were collected throughout the year were commonly higher in the winter months than in the summer months. A statistically significant correlation between streamflow and nitrate concentration existed for six of the seven sites, indicating that seasonal variability in precipitation may be the cause of some of the seasonal variation in concentration. Other possible explanations for this variation include the seasonal cycle in plant uptake of nitrogen and seasonal fluctuations in uptake of nitrate by algae in streams. Because no information was available about the traveltime for ground water, interpretation of this temporal variation was not conclusive. Estimates of base-flow loads and yields of nitrate showed that agricultural areas underlain by carbonate bedrock provide the highest yield of nitrate when compared with the other areas studied. Agricultural areas underlain by sandstone and shale and crystalline bedrock also provide large amounts of nitrate to the river. The large amount of nitrate in the water from these areas cause a significant increase in nitrate loads transported by the Susquehanna River to the Chesapeake Bay. Urban areas underlain by carbonate bedrock had a high yield of nitrate but comprise such a small part of the basin that the nitrate load from these areas was small. In contrast, forested areas underlain by sandstone and shale bedrock had low base-flow nitrate yields, but these areas comprise a large percentage of the basin, making the overall nitrate load from these areas high.
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USGS Numbered Series
Nitrate in ground water and stream base flow in the lower Susquehanna River Basin, Pennsylvania and Maryland