Ground-water quality was assessed in a 5,000-square-mile area of the High Plains aquifer in south-central Kansas that is susceptible to nonpoint-source contamination from agricultural and petroleum-production activities. Of particular interest was the presence of agricultural chemicals and petroleum-derived hydrocarbons that might have been associated with brines that formerly were disposed into unlined ponds.
Random sampling of ground water was done within a framework of discrete land-use areas (irrigated cropland, petroleum-production land containing former brine-disposal ponds, and undeveloped rangeland) of 3-10 square miles. Although true baseline water-quality conditions probably are rare, in this region they are represented most closely by ground water in areas of undeveloped rangeland. The sampling design enabled statistical hypothesis testing, using nonparametric procedures, of the effects of land use, unsaturated-zone lithology, and type of well sampled.
Results indicate that regional ground-water quality has been affected by prevailing land-use activities, as shown by increased concentrations of several inorganic constituents. Ground water beneath irrigated cropland was characterized by significantly larger concentrations of hardness, alkalinity, calcium, magnesium, potassium, fluofide, and nitrite plus nitrate than was water beneath undeveloped rangeland. Few nondegraded pesticides were detected in the aquifer, probably because of degradation and sorption. Atrazine was the most common, but only in small concentrations. round water beneath petroleum-production land was characterized by significantly larger concentrations of hardness, alkalinity, dissolved solids, sodium, and chloride than was water beneath undeveloped rangeland. Nonpoint-source contamination by oil-derived hydrocarbons was not discernible. The occurrences of trace organic compounds were similar between petroleum-production land and undeveloped rangeland, which indicates a natural origin for these compounds.
The unsaturated zone in the study area is lithologically heterogeneous and contains substantial amounts of clay that inhibit the downward movement of water and solutes. Within the aquifer, the rate of lateral regional flow and solute transport is slow enough so that the ground-water quality reflects overlying land use in discrete areas of several square miles, but it is still sufficiently rapid so that the type of well sampled is not important in regional characterizations of water quality beneath irrigated cropland; the seasonal pumping of irrigation wells does not appear to divert regional flow enough to cause substantial local anomalies of more mineralized ground water.