Water-Quality Conditions and Relation to Drainage-Basin Characteristics in the Scituate Reservoir Basin, Rhode Island, 1982-95

U.S. Geological Survey, Water-Resources Investigation Report 00-4086

by Robert F. Breault, Marcus C. Waldron, Lora K. Barlow, and David C. Dickerman

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The Scituate Reservoir Basin covers about 94 square miles in north central Rhode Island and supplies more than 60 percent of the State of Rhode Island's drinking water. The basin includes the Scituate Reservoir Basin and six smaller tributary reservoirs with a combined capacity of about 40 billion gallons. Most of the basin is forested and undeveloped. However, because of its proximity to the Providence, Rhode Island, metropolitan area, the basin is subject to increasing development pressure and there is concern that this may lead to the degradation of the water supply.

Selected water-quality constituent concentrations, loads, and trends in the Scituate Reservoir Basin, Rhode Island, were investigated locate parts of the basin likely responsible for exporting disproportionately large amounts of water-quality constituents to streams, rivers, and tributary reservoirs, and to determine whether water quality in the basin has been changing with time. Water-quality data collected between 1982 and 1995 by the Providence Water Supply Board PWSB) in 34 subbasins of the Scituate Reservoir Basin were analyzed. Subbasin loads and yields of total coliform bacteria, chloride, nitrate, iron, and manganese, estimated from constituent concentrations and estimated mean daily discharge records for the 1995 water year, were used to determine which subbasins contributed disproportionately large amounts of these constituents. Measurements of pH, color, turbidity, and concentrations of total coliform bacteria, sodium, alkalinity, chloride, nitrate, orthophosphate, iron, and manganese made between 1982 and 1995 by the PWSB were evaluated for trends. To determine the potential effects of human-induced changes in drainage- basin characteristics on water quality in the basin, relations between drainage-basin characteristics and concentrations of selected water-quality constituents also were investigated.

Median values for pH, turbidity, total coliform bacteria, sodium, alkalinity, chloride, nitrate, and iron were largest in subbasins with predominately residential land use. Median instantaneous loads reflected drainage-basin size. However, loads normalized by drainage area (median instantaneous yields) also were largest in residential areas where point and non-point sources are likely, and in areas of poorly drained soils.

Significant trends in water-quality constituents from 1982 to 1995 in the Scituate Reservoir Basin indicate that the quality of the water resources in the basin may be slowly changing. Scituate Reservoir subbasins with large amounts of residential land use showed increasing trends in alkalinity and chloride. In contrast, subbasins distributed throughout the drainage basin showed increasing trends in pH, color, nitrate, and iron concentrations, indicating that these characteristics and constituents may be affected more by atmospheric deposition.

Although changing, water-quality constituent concentrations in the Scituate Reservoir Basin only occasionally exceeded Rhode Island and USEPA water-quality guidelines and standards. Result of correlation analysis between pH, color, turbidity, and concentrations total coliform bacteria, sodium, alkalinity, chloride, nitrate, orthophosphate, iron, and manganese and land use, geology, wetlands, slope, soil drainability, and roads indicated that the percentage of wetlands, roads, and slope appear have the greatest effect on water-quality in the Scituate Reservoir Basin. The percentage of urban, residential, and commercial land use also are important, but to a lesser degree than wetlands, roads, and slope. Finally, geology appears to have the least effect on water quality compared to other drainage-basin characteristics investigated.

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