Environmental Setting and Effects on Water Quality in the Great and Little Miami River Basins, Ohio and Indiana

Water-Resources Investigations Report 1999–4201
By: , and 



The Great and Little Miami River Basins drain approximately 7,354 square miles in southwestern Ohio and southeastern Indiana and are included in the more than 50 major river basins and aquifer systems selected for water-quality assessment as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Principal streams include the Great and Little Miami Rivers in Ohio and the Whitewater River in Indiana. The Great and Little Miami River Basins are almost entirely within the Till Plains section of the Central Lowland physiographic province and have a humid continental climate, characterized by well-defined summer and winter seasons. With the exception of a few areas near the Ohio River, Pleistocene glacial deposits, which are predominantly till, overlie lower Paleozoic limestone, dolomite, and shale bedrock. The principal aquifer is a complex buried-valley system of sand and gravel aquifers capable of supporting sustained well yields exceeding 1,000 gallons per minute. Designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a sole-source aquifer, the Buried-Valley Aquifer System is the principal source of drinking water for 1.6 million people in the basins and is the dominant source of water for southwestern Ohio. Water use in the Great and Little Miami River Basins averaged 745 million gallons per day in 1995. Of this amount, 48 percent was supplied by surface water (including the Ohio River) and 52 percent was supplied by ground water.

Land-use and waste-management practices influence the quality of water found in streams and aquifers in the Great and Little Miami River Basins. Land use is approximately 79 percent agriculture, 13 percent urban (residential, industrial, and commercial), and 7 percent forest. An estimated 2.8 million people live in the Great and Little Miami River Basins; major urban areas include Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. Fertilizers and pesticides associated with agricultural activity, discharges from municipal and industrial wastewater-treatment and thermoelectric plants, urban runoff, and disposal of solid and hazardous wastes contribute contaminants to surface water and ground water throughout the study area.

Surface water and ground water in the Great and Little Miami River Basins are classified as very hard, calcium-magnesiumbicarbonate waters. The major-ion composition and hardness of surface water and ground water reflect extensive contact with the carbonate-rich soils, glacial sediments, and limestone or dolomite bedrock. Dieldrin, endrin, endosulfan II, and lindane are the most commonly reported organochlorine pesticides in streams draining the Great and Little Miami River Basins. Peak concentrations of the herbicides atrazine and metolachlor in streams commonly are associated with post-application runoff events. Nitrate concentrations in surface water average 3 to 4 mg/L (milligrams per liter) in the larger streams and also show strong seasonal variations related to application periods and runoff events.

Ambient iron concentrations in ground water pumped from aquifers in the Great and Little Miami River Basins often exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (300 micrograms per liter). Chloride concentrations are below aesthetic drinking-water guidelines (250 mg/L), except in ground water pumped from low-yielding Ordovician shale; chloride concentrations in sodium-chloriderich ground water pumped from the shale bedrock can exceed 1,000 mg/L. Some of the highest average nitrate concentrations in ground water in Ohio and Indiana are found in wells completed in the buried-valley aquifer; these concentrations typically are found in those parts of the sand and gravel aquifer that are not overlain by clay-rich till. Atrazine was the most commonly detected herbicide in private wells. Concentrations of volatile organic compounds in ground water generally were below Federal drinking-water standards, except near areas of known or suspected contamination.

Evaluation of fish and macroinvertebrate community performance in streams and rivers draining the Great and Little Miami River Basins indicates that most streams meet basic aquatic-life-use criteria set by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for warmwater habitat. Stream reaches whose biological community performance meet aquatic-lifeuse criteria defined for exceptional warmwater habitat are found in Twin Creek, the Upper Great Miami River, the Little Miami River, and the Whitewater River Basins. Other streams have exhibited significant improvements in biological community performance (and water quality)'that are attributed primarily to reduced pollutant loadings from wastewater-treatment plants upgraded since 1972.

Four hydrogeomorphic regions were delineated in the Great and Little Miami River Basins based on distinct and relatively homogeneous natural characteristics. Primary features used to delineate the hydrogeomorphic regions include bedrock geology, surficial geology, physiography, hydrology, soil types, and vegetation. These four regions Till Plains, Drift Plains/Unglaciated, Interlobate, and Fluvial are used in the Great and Little Miami River Basins study to assess the influence of natural features of the environmental setting on surface- and ground-water quality.

Suggested Citation

Debrewer, L.M., Rowe, G.L., Jr., Reutter, D.C., Moore, R.C., Hambrook, J.A., and Baker, N.T., 2000, Environmental setting and effects on water quality in the Great and Little Miami River Basins, Ohio and Indiana: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 1999–4201, 110 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/wri994201.

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Environmental Setting
  • Effects of Environmental Setting on Water Quality
  • Major Environmental Subdivisions of the Great and Little Miami River Basins
  • Summary
  • References Cited

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Environmental Setting and Effects on Water Quality in the Great and Little Miami River Basins, Ohio and Indiana
Series title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number 1999–4201
DOI 10.3133/wri994201
Year Published 2000
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Denver, CO
Contributing office(s) Indiana Water Science Center
Description Report: ix, 98 p.
Country United States
State Indiana, Ohio
Other Geospatial Great Miami River Basin, Little Miami River Basin
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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