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Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5139

Prepared in cooperation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Recent (2008–10) Water Quality in the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer and Its Contributing Zone, Central Texas, with Emphasis on Factors Affecting Nutrients and Bacteria

By Barbara J. Mahler, MaryLynn Musgrove, Thomas L. Sample, and Corinne I. Wong

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (4.71 MB)Abstract

The Barton Springs zone, which comprises the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and the watersheds to the west that contribute to its recharge, is in south-central Texas, an area with rapid growth in population and increasing amounts of land area affected by development. During November 2008—March 2010, an investigation of factors affecting the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria in the Barton Springs zone was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The primary objectives of the study were to characterize occurrence of nutrients and bacteria in the Barton Springs zone under a range of flow conditions; to improve understanding of the interaction between surface-water quality and groundwater quality; and to evaluate how factors such as streamflow variability and dilution affect the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria in the Barton Springs zone. The USGS collected and analyzed water samples from five streams (Barton, Williamson, Slaughter, Bear, and Onion Creeks), two groundwater wells (Marbridge and Buda), and the main orifice of Barton Springs in Austin, Texas. During the period of the study, during which the hydrologic conditions transitioned from exceptional drought to wetter than normal, water samples were collected routinely (every 3 to 4 weeks) from the streams, wells, and spring and, in response to storms, from the streams and spring. All samples were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, the bacterium Escherichia coli, and suspended sediment. During the dry period, the geochemistry of groundwater at the two wells and at Barton Springs was dominated by flow from the aquifer matrix and was relatively similar and unchanging at the three sites. At the onset of the wet period, when the streams began to flow, the geochemistry of groundwater samples from the Marbridge well and Barton Springs changed rapidly, and concentrations of most major ions and nutrients and densities of Escherichia coli became more similar to those of samples from the streams relative to concentrations and densities during the dry period. Geochemical modeling indicated that the proportion of Barton Springs discharge composed of stream recharge increased from about 0–8 percent during the dry period to about 80 percent during the wet period. The transition from exceptional drought to wetter-than-normal conditions resulted in a number of marked changes that highlight factors affecting the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria and the strong influence of stream recharge on water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and had a pronounced effect on the fate of nitrogen species. Organic nitrogen loaded to and stored in soils during the dry period was nitrified to nitrate when the soils were rewetted, resulting in elevated concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite in streams as these constituents were progressively leached during continued wet weather. Estimated mean monthly loads of organic nitrogen and nitrate plus nitrite in stream recharge and Barton Springs discharge, which were relatively low and constant during the dry period, increased during the wet period. Loads of organic nitrogen, on average, were about six times greater in stream recharge than in Barton Springs discharge, indicating that organic nitrogen likely was being converted to nitrate within the aquifer. Loads of total nitrogen (organic nitrogen plus ammonia and nitrate plus nitrite) in stream recharge (162 kilograms per day) and in Barton Springs discharge (157 kilograms per day) for the period of the investigation were not significantly different. Dilution was not an important factor affecting concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite in the streams or in Barton Springs during the period of this investigation: Concentrations of nitrate plus nitrite did not decrease in streams with increasing stream discharge, and nitrate plus nitrite concentrations measured at Barton Springs during the period of this investigation were positively correlated with spring discharge. Dilution or another mechanism, such as deposition or filtration, decreased densities of Escherichia coli from stream recharge to spring discharge during the wet period but not during the dry period. There were relatively few correlations between concentrations of nutrients or densities of Escherichia coli and the explanatory variables of suspended-sediment concentration and discharge, indicating that these variables are poor predictors of nutrient and bacteria occurrence. The results of this investigation demonstrate that climatic conditions and streamflow variability have a marked effect on the fate and transport of nutrients and bacteria from stream recharge to Barton Springs discharge.

First posted September 8, 2011

For additional information contact:
Director, Texas Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
8027 Exchange Drive
Austin, Texas 78754-4733
http://tx.usgs.gov/

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Suggested citation:

Mahler, B.J., Musgrove, M., Sample, T.L., and Wong, C.I., 2011, Recent (2008–10) water quality in the Barton Springs segment of the Edwards aquifer and its contributing zone, central Texas, with emphasis on factors affecting nutrients and bacteria: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2011–5139, 66 p.



Contents

Abstract

Introduction

Methods of Investigation

Climatic and Hydrologic Conditions During the Period of the Study

Water Quality of the Barton Springs Segment of the Edwards Aquifer and Its Contributing Zone (November 2008—March 2010)

Synthesis of Factors Affecting Nutrients and Bacteria

Summary

References Cited

Appendix


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