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Cover of WRIR 01-4185

Water Quality of the Flint River Basin, Alabama and Tennessee, 1999-2000

U.S. Geological Survey, Water-Resources Investigations Report 01-4185

by Anne B. Hoos, Jerry W. Garrett, and Rodney R. Knight

This report is available as a pdf below


Abstract

The U.S. Geological Survey monitored eight stream sites in the Flint River Basin during the period January 1999 through May 2000, to characterize patterns in the occurrence of pesticides, fecal-indicator bacteria, and nutrients in relation to season and streamflow conditions and to land-use patterns. This study is part of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, which was designed to assess water quality as it relates to various land uses.


Every water sample collected from the Flint River Basin had detectable levels of at least two pesticides; 64 percent of the samples contained mixtures of at least five pesticides. In general, pesticides detected most frequently and at highest concentrations in streams corresponded to the pesticides with the highest rates of use in the watersheds. Detections of fluometuron, norflurazon, and atrazine were more frequent (by a margin of 15 percent or more) in samples from the Flint River when compared with the frequencies of pesticide detections at 62 agricultural stream sites across the Nation. Detections of fluometuron in the Flint River were more frequent even when compared with a cotton-cultivation subset of the 62 sites. For most pesticides, maximum concentrations did not exceed criteria to protect aquatic life; however, maximum concentrations of atrazine, cyanazine, and malathion exceeded aquatic-life criteria in at least one sample. Concentrations near or exceeding the aquatic-life criteria occurred only during the spring and summer (April-July), and generally occurred during storm flows.


Less than 5 percent of the estimated mass of pesticides applied annually to agricultural areas in the Flint River Basin was transported to the stream at the monitoring points on the Flint River near Brownsboro, Alabama, and on Hester Creek near Plevna, Alabama. The pesticides with the highest ratios (greater than 3 percent) of the amount transported instream to the amount applied—atrazine, metolachlor, fluometuron, and norflurazon—are preemergent herbicides applied to the soil before the crops have emerged, which increases the probability of transport in surface runoff.


Concentrations of the fecal-bacteria indicator Escherichia coli (E. coli) in the Flint River and Hester Creek exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency criterion for recreation in almost all storm samples, and in many samples collected up to 6 days following a storm. Concentrations in the Flint River were strongly correlated with sample turbidity, suggesting that turbidity might be useful as a surrogate for estimating E. coli concentrations. Concentrations of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus in samples from the Flint River generally exceeded thresholds indicating eutrophic potential, whereas concentrations in samples from Hester Creek were generally below the thresholds. When compared with nutrient data from a set of 24 agricultural basins across the southeastern region of the United States, concentrations in the Flint River and Hester Creek were slightly above the regional median.


Base-flow concentrations of certain pesticides, nutrients, and E. coli were compared to land-use information for eight sites in the Flint River Basin. The highest base-flow concentrations of aldicarb sulfoxide, fluometuron, and phosphorus were found in the tributaries with the greatest density of cotton acreage in the watershed. Similarly, high base-flow concentrations of total nitrogen were correlated with a high percentage of cultivated land in the watershed. Lack of information about distribution of stream access by livestock weakened the analysis of correlation between livestock and base-flow concentrations of E. coli and nutrients.


Input of dissolved and suspended chemicals from the Flint River during storms influences water quality in the reach of the Tennessee River from which the City of Huntsville, Alabama, withdraws about 40 percent of its drinking water. During the storm of April 2-5, 2000, concentrations of several pesticides were at least a factor five times greater in Huntsville's intake water when compared with concentrations in the Tennessee River upstream from the Flint River, although concentrations of all pesticides were below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standards at all sites on the Tennessee River and in Huntsville's intake water.

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U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
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