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U.S. Geological Circular 1225--The Quality of Our Nation's Waters--Nutrients and Pesticides


Organochlorine insecticides bind strongly to soils and are carried with eroded soils to streams by runoff from irrigation and rainfall. In streams, the soil-bound insecticides may dissolve in water, remain suspended, or settle to the streambed. They also accumulate in fish. Under-standing and managing soil erosion is a key to reducing organochlorine contamination.

Percentage of irrigated cropland in furrow irrigation.

For example, furrow irrigation causes more erosion than sprinkler or drip irrigation. In the Central Columbia Plateau, DDT concentrations in streambed sediment and fish increased as the percentage of furrow irrigation in the basin increased.

Total DDT transported, in grams per day.
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In the San Joaquin-Tulare Basins, the amount of DDT transported with suspended sediment in the San Joaquin River and tributaries generally was greater during winter runoff than during the irrigation season. Controlling irrigation-induced soil erosion would reduce but not eliminate DDT in the streams because large quantities are transported during infrequent storms.

Organochlorine insecticides were highest in urban streams and where historical agricultural use was greatest

Concentrations of organochlorine insecticides in bed sediment and fish correspond to land use and past application rates. Although most uses of organochlorine insecticides ended 10 to 25 years ago, they remain a significant water-quality issue for many streams. Overall, 14 percent of bed-sediment samples had concentrations that exceeded sediment-quality guidelines for protection of aquatic life,(39) and 19 percent of sites had concentrations in fish that exceeded New York guidelines for protection of fish-eating wildlife.(40) Compounds that most often exceeded guidelines were DDT and chlordane in bed sediment and DDT and dieldrin in fish.

Almost all urban streams had high or medium concentrations of the organochlorine insecticides compared with other sites. Sediment-quality guidelines were exceeded at 37 percent of urban sites, with several sites each in urbanized areas of the Connecticut, Housatonic, and Thames River Basins, Hudson River Basin, Trinity River Basin, and Georgia-Florida Coastal Plain. Concentrations in whole fish exceeded guidelines for the protection of fish-eating wildlife at 21 percent of urban sites.

In agricultural streams, concentrations of organochlorine insecticides were highest in areas of high past use. High concentrations were most common for streams in the Central Columbia Plateau, Georgia-Florida Coastal Plain, and Trinity River Basin. One or more sediment-quality guidelines were exceeded at 15 percent of agricultural sites, and concentrations in whole fish exceeded wildlife guidelines at 20 percent of sites.

Many streams and rivers with mixed land-use influences also had high concentrations in bed sediment, particularly in basins with extensive agricultural areas where past use was high, such as in the Southeast and the irrigated West, and in basins with high population density, such as in the Northeast. Sediment-quality guidelines were exceeded at 11 percent of these sites, and wildlife guidelines were exceeded in whole fish at 24 percent of these sites. In undeveloped areas, organochlorine concentrations generally were low and did not exceed sediment-quality guidelines.

A significant health concern in some regions is consumption of fish with high levels of organochlorine insecticides in their flesh. Human-health guidelines for edible fish tissue(41) are not directly applicable to NAWQA results, which are based on whole-fish analysis of mostly carp and suckers. Nevertheless, the NAWQA fish data provide a relative indication of potential concern. At about 30 percent of NAWQA sites, insecticide concentrations in whole fish exceeded human-health guidelines for edible fish tissue.(41) For any of these streams that are active fisheries, additional assessment of fillets of edible species is advisable if this has not already been done.


A national ranking of organochlorines in bed sediment. Urban streams Rivers and streams with mixed land use.

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