USGS - science for a changing world

Publications—Open-File Report 00–422

A Synopsis of Technical Issues of Concern for Monitoring Trace Elements in Highway and Urban Runoff

By Robert F. Breault and Gregory E. Granato

U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00–422

Prepared in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration. A Contribution to the National Highway Runoff Data and Methodology Synthesis.


This report is available in Portable Document Format (PDF):

OFR 00–422 (663 KB)  – 77 pages


Trace elements, which are regulated for aquatic life protection, are a primary concern in highway- and urban-runoff studies because stormwater runoff may transport these constituents from the land surface to receiving waters. Many of these trace elements are essential for biological activity and become detrimental only when geologic or anthropogenic sources exceed concentrations beyond ranges typical of the natural environment. The Federal Highway Administration and State Transportation Agencies are concerned about the potential effects of highway runoff on the watershed scale and for the management and protection of watersheds. Transportation agencies need information that is documented as valid, current, and scientifically defensible to support planning and management decisions. There are many technical issues of concern for monitoring trace elements; therefore, trace-element data commonly are considered suspect, and the responsibility to provide data-quality information to support the validity of reported results rests with the data-collection agency.

Paved surfaces are fundamentally different physically, hydraulically, and chemically from the natural surfaces typical of most freshwater systems that have been the focus of many traceelement- monitoring studies. Existing scientific conceptions of the behavior of trace elements in the environment are based largely upon research on natural systems, rather than on systems typical of pavement runoff. Additionally, the logistics of stormwater sampling are difficult because of the great uncertainty in the occurrence and magnitude of storm events. Therefore, trace-element monitoring programs may be enhanced if monitoring and sampling programs are automated. Automation would standardize the process and provide a continuous record of the variations in flow and water-quality characteristics.

Great care is required to collect and process samples in a manner that will minimize potential contamination or attenuation of trace elements and other sources of bias and variability in the sampling process. Trace elements have both natural and anthropogenic sources that may affect the sampling process, including the sample-collection and handling materials used in many trace-element monitoring studies. Trace elements also react with these materials within the timescales typical for collection, processing and analysis of runoff samples. To study the characteristics and potential effects of trace elements in highway and urban runoff, investigators typically sample one or more operationally defined matrixes including: whole water, dissolved (filtered water), suspended sediment, bottom sediment, biological tissue, and contaminant sources. The sampling and analysis of each of these sample matrixes can provide specific information about the occurrence and distribution of trace elements in runoff and receiving waters. There are, however, technical concerns specific to each matrix that must be understood and addressed through use of proper collection and processing protocols. Valid protocols are designed to minimize inherent problems and to maximize the accuracy, precision, comparability, and representativeness of data collected. Documentation, including information about monitoring protocols, quality assurance and quality control efforts, and ancillary data also is necessary to establish data quality. This documentation is especially important for evaluation of historical traceelement monitoring data, because trace-element monitoring protocols and analysis methods have been constantly changing over the past 30 years.





Purpose and Scope



Trace-Element Monitoring

Clean Monitoring Methods

Clean Monitoring Materials

Spatial and Temporal Variability

Stormwater Monitoring Logistics

Quality Assurance and Quality Control

Sampling Matrix

Whole Water


Technical Concerns

Dissolved (Filtered Water)


Technical Concerns

Suspended Sediment


Technical Concerns

Bottom Sediment


Technical Concerns

Biological Tissue


Technical Concerns


Vehicular Sources

Sources in the Highway Environment

Data-Quality Issues for Regional or National Synthesis



This report is available online in Portable Document Format (PDF). If you do not have the Adobe Acrobat PDF Reader, it is available for free download from Adobe Systems Incorporated.

Document Accessibility: Adobe Systems Incorporated has information about PDFs and the visually impaired. This information provides tools to help make PDF files accessible. These tools convert Adobe PDF documents into HTML or ASCII text, which then can be read by a number of common screen-reading programs that synthesize text as audible speech. In addition, an accessible version of Acrobat Reader 8.0 for Windows (English only), which contains support for screen readers, is available. These tools and the accessible reader may be obtained free from Adobe at Adobe Access.

Suggested Citation:
Breault, R.F., Granato, G.E., 2000, A synopsis of technical issues for monitoring trace elements in highway and urban runoff: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 00-422, 67 p.

For additional information write to:

USGS Massachusetts–Rhode Island Water Science Center
10 Bearfoot Road
Northborough, MA 01532

or visit our Web site at:

U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey
Persistent URL:
Page Contact Information: USGS Publishing Network
Last modified: Wednesday, 07-Dec-2016 18:12:53 EST
FirstGov button  Take Pride in America button