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


Atrazine concentration, in micrograms per liter.
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The heavy use of herbicides on corn in the Central Nebraska Basins is reflected in high atrazine concentrations in the Platte River during runoff from rainfall following spring herbicide applications. Low-level atrazine concentrations were found throughout much of the year, punctuated by seasonal pulses of high concentrations that exceeded the drinking-water standard (MCL) and the Canadian aquatic-life guideline. The annual average concentration, however, did not exceed the drinking-water standard.

Lincoln, Omaha, and smaller cities along the Platte River withdraw drinking water from an aquifer adjacent to the river. Much of the ground water that is pumped from the sand and gravel portions of this aquifer is vulnerable to contamination from atrazine in the Platte River. This is a concern to water providers

Water treatment is ineffective in removing herbicides like atrazine from the treated water supplied.
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because studies have shown that conventional water treatment is ineffective in removing herbicides like atrazine from the treated water supplied to households.(38)

Herbicides in streams and major rivers were highest in the most intensively farmed agricultural regions

Total herbicide concentrations consistently ranked highest in agricultural streams and major rivers of the White River Basin and Central Nebraska Basins, which are on the eastern and western margins of the Corn Belt, respectively. The Corn Belt has the highest herbicide use in the Nation. The high concentrations measured in the White River Basin and Central Nebraska Basins are consistent with other studies in the Mississippi River Basin, which show broad-scale herbicide contamination of streams and rivers, including the Mississippi River.(37)

All seven agricultural streams and the two major rivers sampled in the White River Basin and Central Nebraska Basins frequently had concentrations of one or more herbicides that exceeded a Canadian aquatic-life guideline. Atrazine exceeded its guideline of 2 g/L at all sites, and cyanazine exceeded its guideline of 2 g/L at four sites. At this time, there are no national aquatic-life guidelines for these compounds in the United States, and individual States have varying guidelines.

Given the regional extent of intensive herbicide use and elevated levels of herbicides in streams within the Corn Belt, management strategies that are successful in reducing use and runoff of herbicides that are applied for corn and soybean production will likely lead to regional-scale improvements in water quality.

Other streams ranking high in herbicide concentrations were agricultural streams that drain intensively farmed areas in the Willamette Basin, San Joaquin-Tulare Basins, South Platte River Basin, and Trinity River Basin. A diverse group of herbicides, including trifluralin, metolachlor, and 2,4-D, in addition to atrazine and cyanazine, exceeded aquatic-life guidelines in one or more of these streams.

Most streams with low herbicide concentrations were agricultural streams in areas with low to moderate herbicide use in their drainage basins. Exceptions to this are low concentrations of herbicides in agricultural streams of the Red River of the North Basin and in the Southeast, even though use is moderate to high. One possible reason for the low concentrations in the Red River of the North Basin is a higher retention of herbicides in the soil because of particularly high levels of organic matter.

Among urban sites, only Las Vegas Wash in Las Vegas had relatively high herbicide concentrations compared to other streams. Only Little Buck Creek in the Indianapolis area had concentrations that exceeded a Canadian aquatic-life guideline, and that was in a small percentage of samples because of atrazine use on agricultural land in its watershed.

A national ranking of herbicides in streams. Urban streams Rivers and streams with mixed land use.

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