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National findings and their implications for water policies and strategies

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

NAWQA findings focus on how, when, and why nutrients and pesticides vary across the Nation. This information is useful to help anticipate, prioritize, and manage water-quality conditions in different land uses and environmental settings. In addition, the findings point to several science-based considerations for policies and strategies designed to restore and protect the quality of our most vulnerable waters.

Do NAWQA findings substantiate national concerns?

NAWQA findings indicate that streams and ground water in basins with significant agricultural or urban development, or with a mix of these land uses, almost always contain complex mixtures of nutrients and pesticides. Concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus commonly exceed levels that can contribute to excessive plant growth in streams. For example, average annual concentrations of phosphorus in three-fourths of streams in urban and agricultural areas were greater than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) desired goal for preventing nuisance plant growth in streams. Nitrate generally does not pose a health risk for residents whose drinking water comes from streams or from aquifers buried relatively deep beneath the land. Health risks increase in those aquifers located in geologic settings, such as in sand, gravel, or karst (weathered carbonate rock), that enable rapid movement of water. The most prevalent nitrate contamination was detected in shallow ground water (less than 100 feet below land surface) beneath agricultural and urban areas. This finding raises potential concerns for human health, particularly in rural agricultural areas where shallow ground water is used for domestic water supply. Furthermore, high levels of nitrate in shallow ground water may serve as an early warning of possible future contamination of older underlying ground water, which is commonly a primary source for public water supply.

At least one pesticide was found in almost every water and fish sample collected from streams and in more than one-half of shallow wells sampled in agricultural and urban areas. Moreover, individual pesticides seldom occurred alone. Almost every sample from streams and about one-half of samples from wells with a detected pesticide contained two or more pesticides. Concentrations of individual pesticides in samples from wells and as annual averages in streams were almost always lower than current USEPA drinking-water standards and guidelines. Standards and guidelines have been established for 46 of the 83 pesticides and breakdown products measured in water. Effects of pesticides on aquatic life, however, are a concern based on U.S. and Canadian guidelines, which have been established for 28 of the pesticides measured. More than one-half of agricultural and urban streams sampled had concentrations of at least one pesticide that exceeded a guideline for the protection of aquatic life.

Potential risks to humans and aquatic life implied by NAWQA pesticide findings can be only partially addressed by comparison to established standards and guidelines. Many pesticides and their breakdown products do not have standards or guidelines, and current standards and guidelines do not yet account for exposure to mixtures and seasonal pulses of high concentrations. In addition, potential effects on reproductive, nervous, and immune systems, as well as on chemically sensitive individuals, are not yet well understood. For example, some of the most frequently detected pesticides are suspected endocrine disrupters that have potential to affect reproduction or development of aquatic organisms or wildlife by interfering with natural hormones.

Nutrients and pesticides and their connection to land use

Relative levels of contamination are closely linked to land use and to the amounts and types of chemicals used in each setting. Some of the highest concentrations of nitrogen and herbicides, including those most heavily used (such as atrazine, metolachlor, alachlor, and cyanazine) were detected in samples collected from streams and shallow ground water in agricultural areas. Some of the highest concentrations of phosphorus and insecticides, including those currently used (such as diazinon, carbaryl, and malathion) and those historically used (such as DDT, dieldrin, and chlordane) were detected in samples collected from urban streams.


Medium Medium-High Low
Phosphorus Medium-High Medium-High Low
Herbicides Medium Low-High no data
Currently used
Medium-High Low-Medium no data
Historically used
Medium-High Low-high Low


Shallow Ground Water
Urban areas
Agricultural areas
Currently used insecticides
Historically used insecticides


Are seasonal and geographic patterns evident and important in determining protection strategies?

Land and chemical use are not the sole predictors of water quality. Concentrations of nutrients and pesticides vary considerably from season to season, as well as among watersheds with differing vulnerability to contamination. Natural features, such as geology and soils, and land-management practices, such as tile drainage and irrigation, can affect the movement of chemicals over land or to aquifers and can thereby exert local and regional controls on water quality. Understanding the national, regional, and local importance of land and chemical use, natural features, and management practices on water quality increases the effectiveness of policies designed to protect water resources in diverse settings. Seasonal patterns in water quality of streams emerged in most basins. The patterns reflect many factors, but mainly the timing and amount of chemical use, the frequency and magnitude of runoff from rainstorms or snowmelt, and specific land-management practices, such as irrigation and tile drainage. Concentrations of nutrients and pesticides are highest during runoff following chemical applications. The seasonal nature of these factors dictate the timing of elevated concentrations in drinking-water sources and aquatic habitats.

Natural features and land-management practices make some areas more vulnerable to contamination than other areas, thus, concentrations of nutrients and pesticides can vary among seemingly similar land uses and types of chemical applications. Patterns are most evident on a local scale, but they also occur regionally where similar natural features, land use, and land-management practices extend over broad areas. For example, ground water underlying intensive agriculture in parts of the Upper Midwest is minimally contaminated where it is protected by relatively impermeable soils and glacial till that cover much of the region. Tile drains and ditches commonly provide quick pathways for nutrient and pesticide runoff to streams in this area. Another example is in the Southeast, where streams and ground water commonly contain relatively low concentrations of nitrogen, partly because soil and hydrologic characteristics in this region favor conversion to nitrogen gas. In contrast, relatively high nitrogen concentrations occur in streams and shallow ground water in the Central Valley of California and parts of the Northwest, Great Plains, and Mid-Atlantic regions because natural characteristics favor transport of nitrogen.

Is water quality getting better or worse?

Water quality is constantly changing, from season to season and from year to year. Long-term trends are sometimes difficult to distinguish from short-term fluctuations. For many chemicals, it is too early to tell whether conditions are getting better or worse because historical data are insufficient or too inconsistent to measure trends. Despite these challenges, some trends are evident from monitoring of nutrients and pesticides. These trends show that changes in water quality over time frequently are controlled by factors similar to those that affect geographic variability, including natural features, chemical use, and management practices. For example, concentrations of the organochlorine insecticide DDT have decreased in sediment and fish since restrictions were imposed on its production and distribution in the 1970s.

Changes in concentrations of modern, short-lived pesticides also follow changes in use; these changes are often focused in specific regions and land-use areas. For example, increases in acetochlor and decreases in alachlor are evident in some streams in the Upper Midwest, where acetochlor partially replaced alachlor for control of weeds in corn and soybeans beginning in 1994. The changes in use are reflected quickly in stream quality, generally within 1 to 2 years. In contrast, ground water responds more slowly to changes in chemical use or land-management practices because of slower travel-times. This response can be delayed by years or decades.

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