The goals of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program are to describe current water-quality conditions for a large part of the Nation's water resources, identify water-quality changes over time, and identify the primary natural and human factors that affect water quality. The lower Tennessee River Basin is one of 59 river basins selected for study. The water-quality assessment of the lower Tennessee River Basin study unit began in 1997. The lower Tennessee River Basin study unit encompasses an area of about 19,500 square miles and extends from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Paducah, Kentucky. The study unit had a population of about 1.5 million people in 1995.The study unit was subdivided into subunits with relatively homogeneous geology and physiography. Subdivision of the study unit creates a framework to assess the effects of natural and cultural settings on water quality. Nine subunits were delineated in the study unit; their boundaries generally coincide with level III and level IV ecoregion boundaries. The nine subunits are the Coastal Plain, Transition, Western Highland Rim, Outer Nashville Basin, Inner Nashville Basin, Eastern Highland Rim, Plateau Escarpment and Valleys, Cumberland Plateau, and Valley and Ridge.The lower Tennessee River Basin consists of predominantly forest (51 percent) and agricultural land (40 percent). Activities related to agricultural land use, therefore, are the primary cultural factors likely to have a widespread effect on surface- and ground-water quality in the study unit. Inputs of total nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural activities in 1992 were about 161,000 and 37,900 tons, respectively. About 3.7 million pounds (active ingredient) of pesticides was applied to crops in the lower Tennessee River Basin in 1992.State water-quality agencies identified nutrient enrichment and pathogens as water-quality issues affecting both surface and ground water in the lower Tennessee River Basin. Water-quality data collected by State and Federal agencies between 1980 and 1996 were summarized to characterize surface- and ground-water quality of the subunits with respect to these issues. Median concentrations of nitrogen species generally were less than 1 milligram per liter in surface and ground water in all subunits, and were highest throughout the subunits that had the largest percentages of agricultural land use. Median phosphorus concentrations also were less than 1 milligram per liter in all subunits. Phosphatic limestones present in two subunits had a larger effect on phosphorus concentrations in surface and ground water than did the amount of agricultural land use in these subunits. Median counts of fecal coliform were higher in surface water than in ground water in all subunits. The highest median counts in surface water were in the Valley and Ridge (7,500 colonies per 100 milliliters) and the Outer Nashville Basin subunits (5,000 colonies per 100 milliliters). Highest median counts in ground water were in the Inner and Outer Nashville Basin subunit. Natural setting likely has an important effect with respect to fecal contamination of surface and ground water in the lower Tennessee River Basin.