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Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5091

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Quality of Shallow Groundwater and Drinking Water in the Mississippi Embayment-Texas Coastal Uplands Aquifer System and the Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer, South-Central United States, 1994–2004

By Heather L. Welch, James A. Kingsbury, Roland W. Tollett, and Ronald C. Seanor

ABSTRACT

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The Mississippi embayment-Texas coastal uplands aquifer system is an important source of drinking water, providing about 724 million gallons per day to about 8.9 million people in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Alabama. The Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer ranks third in the Nation for total withdrawals of which more than 98 percent is used for irrigation. From 1994 through 2004, water-quality samples were collected from 169 domestic, monitoring, irrigation, and public-supply wells in the Mississippi embayment-Texas coastal uplands aquifer system and the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer in various land-use settings and of varying well capacities as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Groundwater samples were analyzed for physical properties and about 200 water-quality constituents, including total dissolved solids, major inorganic ions, trace elements, radon, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, pesticides, pesticide degradates, and volatile organic compounds.

The occurrence of nutrients and pesticides differed among four groups of the 114 shallow wells (less than or equal to 200 feet deep) in the study area. Tritium concentrations in samples from the Holocene alluvium, Pleistocene valley trains, and shallow Tertiary wells indicated a smaller component of recent groundwater than samples from the Pleistocene terrace deposits. Although the amount of agricultural land overlying the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer was considerably greater than areas overlying parts of the shallow Tertiary and Pleistocene terrace deposits wells, nitrate was rarely detected and the number of pesticides detected was lower than other shallow wells. Nearly all samples from the Holocene alluvium and Pleistocene valley trains were anoxic, and the reducing conditions in these aquifers likely result in denitrification of nitrate. In contrast, most samples from the Pleistocene terrace deposits in Memphis, Tennessee, were oxic, and the maximum nitrate concentration measured was 6.2 milligrams per liter. Additionally, soils overlying the Holocene alluvium and Pleistocene valley trains, generally in areas near the wells, had lower infiltration rates and higher percentages of clay than soils overlying the shallow Tertiary and Pleistocene terrace deposits wells. Differences in these soil properties were associated with differences in the occurrence of pesticides. Pesticides were most commonly detected in samples from wells in the Pleistocene terrace deposits, which generally had the highest infiltration rates and lowest clay content.

Median dissolved phosphorus concentrations were 0.07, 0.11, and 0.65 milligram per liter in samples from the shallow Tertiary, Pleistocene valley trains, and Holocene alluvium, respectively. The widespread occurrence of dissolved phosphorus at concentrations greater than 0.02 milligram per liter suggests either a natural source in the soils or aquifer sediments, or nonpoint sources such as fertilizer and animal waste or a combination of natural and human sources. Although phosphorus concentrations in samples from the Holocene alluvium were weakly correlated to concentrations of several inorganic constituents, elevated concentrations of phosphorus could not be attributed to a specific source. Phosphorus concentrations generally were highest where samples indicated anoxic and reducing conditions in the aquifers. Elevated dissolved phosphorus concentrations in base-flow samples from two streams in the study area suggest that transport of phosphorus with groundwater is a potential source contributing to high yields of phosphorus in the lower Mississippi River basin.

Water from 55 deep wells (greater than 200 feet deep) completed in regional aquifers of Tertiary age represent a sample of the principal aquifers used for drinking-water supply in the study area. The wells were screened in both confined and unconfined parts of these aquifers, and tritium samples collected from 11 wells did not indicate a significant component of recent water. The quality of the water generally was good, and concentrations of most inorganic constituents were less than water-quality criteria for drinking water. Relatively few pesticides or volatile organic compounds were detected. Secondary drinking-water standards were exceeded for iron, manganese, and total dissolved solids in a total of 20, 17, and 10 wells, respectively. Fluoride was detected in one sample at a concentration greater than its secondary maximum contaminant level. Radon activities were greater than 300 picocuries per liter in samples from 10 wells screened in the middle Wilcox aquifer in northwestern Louisiana. While not a drinking-water concern, elevated phosphorus concentrations also were measured in the drinking-water supply aquifers. A relation between phosphorus concentrations and dissolved solids and fluoride suggests a geologic source of phosphorus in these deep wells.

Groundwater withdrawals from these regional aquifers have lowered water levels, which increases the potential of movement of shallow groundwater to deep aquifers. Water-level data for a few wells in the Pleistocene terrace deposits in the Memphis area suggest a hydraulic connection between this shallow aquifer and the deeper middle Claiborne aquifer, locally named the Memphis aquifer, that is used for public supply. Additionally, pesticides and volatile organic compounds were detected in samples from wells screened in shallow and deeper portions of the middle Claiborne aquifer, further illustrating the potential vulnerability of this source of drinking water.

First posted July 14, 2009

For additional information contact:
Director
USGS Mississippi Water Science Center
308 South Airport Road
Jackson, MS 39208-6649
http://ms.water.usgs.gov

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Suggested citation:

Welch, H.L., Kingsbury, J.A., Tollett, R.W., and Seanor, R.C., 2009, Quality of shallow groundwater and drinking water in the Mississippi embayment-Texas coastal uplands aquifer system and the Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer, south-central United States, 1994–2004: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2009–5091, 51 p.



Contents

Abstract

Introduction

Description of Study Area

Methods

Quality of Shallow Groundwater in the Mississippi Embayment-Texas Coastal Uplands and Mississippi River Valley Alluvial Aquifer Systems

The Quality of Drinking Water in the Mississippi Embayment-Texas Coastal Uplands Aquifer System

Summary

References

Appendix 1. Detection frequencies of volatile organic compounds, 1994–2004, in the Mississippi embayment-Texas coastal uplands aquifer system and Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer with and without the 0.2 microgram per liter assessment level

Appendix 2. Water-quality standards and human-health benchmarks for selected constituents analyzed for in the Mississippi embayment-Texas coastal uplands aquifer system and Mississippi River Valley alluvial aquifer, 1994–2004


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