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Amalgamation—The dissolving or blending of a metal (commonly gold and silver) in mercury to separate it from its parent material.

Aquatic guidelines—Specific levels of water quality which, if reached, may adversely affect aquatic life. These are nonenforceable guidelines issued by a governmental agency or other institution.

Aquatic-life criteria—Water-quality guidelines for protection of aquatic life. Often refers to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency water-quality criteria for protection of aquatic organisms. See also Water-quality guidelines and Water-quality standards.

Aquifer—A water-bearing layer of soil, sand, gravel, or rock that will yield usable quantities of water to a well.

Basic Fixed Sites—Sites on streams at which streamflow is measured and samples are collected for temperature, salinity, suspended sediment, major ions and metals, nutrients, and organic carbon to assess the broad-scale spatial and temporal character and transport of inorganic constituents of stream water in relation to hydrologic conditions and environmental settings.

Bed sediment—The material at the bottom of a stream or other watercourse.

Benthic invertebrates—Insects, mollusks, crustaceans, worms, and other organisms without a backbone that live in, on, or near the bottom of lakes, streams, or oceans.

Bioaccumulation—The biological sequestering of a substance at a higher concentration than that at which it occurs in the surrounding environment or medium. Also, the process whereby a substance enters organisms through the gills, epithelial tissues, dietary, or other sources.

Bioavailability—The capacity of a chemical constituent to be taken up by living organisms either through physical contact or by ingestion.

Criterion—A standard rule or test on which a judgment or decision can be based.

Dissolved solids—Amount of minerals, such as salt, that are dissolved in water; amount of dissolved solids is an indicator of salinity or hardness.

Drainage basin—The portion of the surface of the earth that contributes water to a stream through overland runoff, including tributaries and impoundments.

Drinking-water standard or guideline—A threshold concentration in a public drinking-water supply, designed to protect human health. As defined here, standards are U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations that specify the maximum contamination levels for public water systems required to protect the public welfare; guidelines have no regulatory status and are issued in an advisory capacity.

Ecological studies—Studies of biological communities and habitat characteristics to evaluate the effects of physical and chemical characteristics of water and hydrologic conditions on aquatic biota and to determine how biological and habitat characteristics differ among environmental settings in NAWQA Study Units.

Ecoregion—An area of similar climate, landform, soil, potential natural vegetation, hydrology, or other ecologically relevant variables.

Ecosystem—The interacting populations of plants, animals, and microorganisms occupying an area, plus their physical environment.

Ground water—In general, any water that exists beneath the land surface, but more commonly applied to water in fully saturated soils and geologic formations.

Habitat—The part of the physical environment where plants and animals live.

Hydrograph—Graph showing variation of water elevation, velocity, streamflow, or other property of water with respect to time.

Intensive Fixed Sites—Basic Fixed Sites with increased sampling frequency during selected seasonal periods and analysis of dissolved pesticides for 1 year.

Maximum contaminant level (MCL)—Maximum permissible level of a contaminant in water that is delivered to any user of a public water system. MCLs are enforceable standards established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Median—The middle or central value in a distribution of data ranked in order of magnitude. The median is also known as the 50th percentile.

Micrograms per liter (µg/L)—A unit expressing the concentration of constituents in solution as weight (micrograms) of solute per unit volume (liter) of water; equivalent to one part per billion in most stream water and ground water. One thousand micrograms per liter equals 1 milligram per liter (mg/L).

Nitrate—An ion consisting of nitrogen and oxygen (NO3-). Nitrate is a plant nutrient and is very mobile in soils.

Nonpoint source—A pollution source that cannot be defined as originating from discrete points such as pipe discharge. Areas of fertilizer and pesticide applications, atmospheric deposition, manure, and natural inputs from plants and trees are types of nonpoint source pollution.

Nutrient—An element or compound essential for animal and plant growth. Common nutrients in fertilizer include nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Organochlorine compound—Synthetic organic compounds containing chlorine. As generally used, the term refers to compounds containing mostly or exclusively carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine. Examples include organochlorine insecticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, and some solvents containing chlorine.

Organophosphate insecticides—A class of insecticides derived from phosphoric acid. They tend to have high acute toxicity to vertebrates. Although readily metabolized by vertebrates, some metabolic products are more toxic than the parent compound.

Phosphorus—A nutrient essential for growth that can play a key role in stimulating aquatic growth in lakes and streams.

Plankton—Floating or weakly swimming organisms whose migration is controlled by waves and currents. Animals of the group are called zooplankton and the plants are called phytoplankton.

Point source—A source at a discrete location such as a discharge pipe, drainage ditch, tunnel, well, concentrated livestock operation, or floating craft.

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)—A mixture of chlorinated derivatives of biphenyl, marketed under the trade name Aroclor with a number designating the chlorine content (such as Aroclor 1260). PCBs were used in transformers and capacitors for insulating purposes and in gas pipeline systems as a lubricant. Further sale for new use was banned by law in 1979.

Radon—A naturally occurring, colorless, odorless, radioactive gas formed by the disintegration of the element radium; damaging to human lungs when inhaled.

Recharge—Water that infiltrates the ground and reaches the saturated zone.

Runoff—Excess rainwater or snowmelt that is transported to streams by overland flow, tile drains, or ground water.

Semivolatile organic compound (SVOC)—Operationally defined as a group of synthetic organic compounds that are solvent-extractable and that can be determined by gas chromatography/mass spectrometry. SVOCs include phenols, phthalates, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).

Suspended sediment—Particles of rock, sand, soil, and organic detritus carried in suspension in the water column, in contrast to sediment that moves on or near the streambed.

Tolerant species—Those species that are adaptable to (tolerant of) human alterations to the environment and often increase in number when human alterations occur.

Trace element—An element found in only minor amounts (concentrations less than 1.0 milligram per liter) in water or sediment; includes arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, nickel, and zinc.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—Organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure relative to their water solubility. VOCs include components of gasoline, fuel oils, and lubricants, as well as organic solvents, fumigants, some inert ingredients in pesticides, and some by-products of chlorine disinfection.

Water-quality guidelines—Specific levels of water quality which, if reached, may adversely affect human health or aquatic life. These are nonenforceable guidelines issued by a governmental agency or other institution.

Water-quality standards—State-adopted and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency-approved ambient standards for water bodies. Standards include the use of the water body and the water-quality criteria that must be met to protect the designated use or uses.

Watershed—See Drainage basin.

Water table—The point below the land surface where ground water is first encountered and below which the earth is saturated. Depth to the water table varies widely across the country.

Wetlands—Ecosystems whose soil is saturated for long periods seasonally or continuously, including marshes, swamps, and ephemeral ponds.

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U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1215

Suggested citation:

Domagalski, J.L., Knifong, D.L., Dileanis, P.D., Brown, L.R., May, J.T., Connor, Valerie, and Alpers, C.N., 2000, Water Quality in the Sacramento River Basin, California,1994–98: U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1215, 36 p., on-line at

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