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National findings and their implications for water policies and strategies

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

Water-quality patterns in areas with mixed land use and a range of hydrologic and environmental settings
Concentrations of nutrients and pesticides generally are higher and more prevalent in streams than in ground water; however, indications of emerging ground-water contamination are important because ground-water contamination is difficult to reverse. Ground-water flow rates are slow, and a contaminated aquifer can take years or even decades to recover.



Contamination of major aquifers is largely controlled by hydrology and land use

Concentrations of nutrients and pesticides in 33 major aquifers generally were lower than those in shallow ground water underlying agricultural and urban areas. Water that replenishes the major aquifers is derived from a variety of sources and land-use settings, and includes high-quality water from undeveloped lands. In addition, deeper aquifers generally are more protected than shallow ground water by relatively impermeable materials. Contaminants are most prevalent in major aquifers located in vulnerable geologic settings that allow rapid vertical movement of water from the shallow ground-water system. For example, in 4 of 33 major drinking-water aquifers sampled, the USEPA drinking-water standard for nitrate was exceeded in more than 15 percent of samples collected. All four aquifers are relatively shallow, in agricultural areas, and composed of sand and gravel that is vulnerable to contamination by land application of fertilizers. Water in one-third of wells sampled in major aquifers contained one or more pesticides, but only one well had a pesticide (atrazine) concentration that exceeded a drinking-water standard.

Hydrology and land use also are major factors controlling nutrient and pesticide concentrations in major rivers

Concentrations of nutrients and pesticides in major rivers reflect the proportion of urban and agricultural land in the drainage basin. River basins with large proportions of agricultural and (or) urban land had concentrations of nutrients and pesticides that were similar to those in smaller agricultural and urban streams. The greatest variety of pesticides occurred in basins draining both agricultural and urban land. Concentrations of nutrients and pesticides were moderate in major rivers draining mixed land uses because of dilution by water from undeveloped areas. None of the major rivers exceeded drinking-water standards or guidelines, although the consistent presence of pesticide mixtures remains a concern. Guidelines for the protection of aquatic life were exceeded in water at 36 percent of river sites sampled for currently used pesticides. Sediment-quality guidelines were exceeded at 11 percent of sites for DDT and other historically used insecticides, whereas concentrations of these compounds in whole fish exceeded guidelines for the protection of fish-eating wildlife at 24 percent of sites.

Key factors include soils and slope of land

Key factors governing vulnerability of surface water to contamination include the type of soil and slope of the land, both of which help to control the amount and timing runoff. Streams in basins with poorly drained clayey soils, steep slopes, and sparse vegetation generally are most vulnerable to contamination. Tile drains and urban pavement also accelerate flow to streams. In contrast, shallow ground water is most vulnerable to contamination in well-drained areas with rapid infiltration and highly permeable subsurface materials. Crop-management practices, which commonly are designed to reduce or slow the movement of sediment, nutrients, and pesticides to streams, also can increase infiltration of water and contaminants into the ground.


photo showing water runoff
Photo by David F. Usher







Photo showing a farm field.
images size 66KB
Photo by David F. Usher

INCREASING POTENTIAL for nitrogen and phosphorus to enter streams...1

High rainfall, snowmelt, and (or) excessive irrigation, especially following recent fertilizer application

Steeply sloping areas with insufficient vegetation to slow runoff and sediment, or flat areas with artificial drains and ditches, which provide quick pathways for runoff to streams

Clayey and compacted soils underlain by poorly drained sediment and (or) nonporous bedrock, or extensive urban pavement, all of which create relatively impermeable surfaces for runoff

INCREASING POTENTIAL for nitrate to enter ground water...

High rainfall, snowmelt, and (or) excessive irrigation, especially following recent fertilizer application

Well-drained and permeable soils that are underlain by sand and gravel or karst, which enable rapid downward movement of water

Areas where crop-management practices slow runoff and allow more time for water to infiltrate into the ground

Low organic matter content and high levels of dissolved oxygen, which can minimize chemical transformations of nitrate to other forms

1 These findings are based on general reviews of nutrient studies in agricultural and urban areas and do not necessarily indicate influences on specific forms of nitrogen or phosphorus.


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