Assessing Water Quality From Highway Runoff at Selected Sites in North Carolina with the Stochastic Empirical Loading and Dilution Model (SELDM)

Scientific Investigations Report 2019-5031
Prepared in cooperation with the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Division of Highways, Hydraulics Unit and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration, Office of Project Development and Environmental Review
By: , and 



In 2015, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) entered into a cooperative agreement with the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) to develop a North Carolina-enhanced variation of the national Stochastic Empirical Loading and Dilution Model (SELDM) with available North Carolina-specific streamflow and water-quality data and to demonstrate use of the model by documenting selected simulation scenarios. The USGS developed the national SELDM in cooperation with the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to provide the tools and techniques necessary for performing stormwater-quality simulations. SELDM uses a stochastic mass-balance approach to estimate combinations of flows, concentrations, and loads of stormwater constituents from the site of interest (often a highway catchment; nonhighway areas, such as a large impervious area at a shopping center complex, also can be used) and the basin upstream from the stormwater outfall to assess the risk for adverse effects of runoff. SELDM also can be used to simulate the effectiveness of volume reduction, hydrograph extension, and water-quality concentration reductions by stormwater best management practices (BMPs), which are designed to help mitigate the effects of runoff on receiving water bodies.

Some of the statistical inputs needed for the North Carolina-enhanced SELDM were either calculated or augmented using local or regional data from North Carolina. Streamflow statistics used by SELDM were determined for 266 streamgages across North Carolina on the basis of data available through the 2015 water year. Recession ratio statistics used for triangular hydrographs were also developed for 30 streamgages across the State. The NCDOT identified previous research reports on highway-runoff and BMP studies in North Carolina for review of potential data addition to the national FHWA Highway-Runoff Database (HRDB). Following USGS review of these data, a total of 25,087 event mean concentration values and 1,140 storm events for 39 highway-runoff sites and 195 analytes were uploaded to the national HRDB from six North Carolina highway-runoff research reports and a recent USGS bridge deck runoff study. Using data for 27 streamgages in North Carolina, a total of 57 water-quality transport curves were developed for seven constituents for use in simulating water-quality conditions in the upstream basin. Performance data for three BMPs (bioretention, grass strip or swale, and wetland channel) from NCDOT research data were incorporated into the North Carolina-enhanced SELDM for volume-reduction statistics, including the effectiveness of treating four water-quality constituents (total suspended solids, total nitrogen, total phosphorus, nitrate plus nitrite) and turbidity.

Simulations using the North Carolina-enhanced SELDM are presented for two hypothetical upstream basins in the Piedmont ecoregion and one hypothetical highway site to demonstrate how simulations can be used to provide risk-based information about potential effects of stormwater runoff on downstream water quality and the potential for mitigating those risks by using BMPs. The first group of simulations explores the stochastic variability in dilution factors (the ratio of the highway runoff to the total downstream stormflow) for a hypothetical Piedmont rural creek having drainage areas ranging from 1 to 100 square miles. The second group of simulations examines dilution factors based on variations in precipitation, streamflow, and recession ratios for two hypothetical Piedmont upstream basins (rural and urban) where the drainage area was held constant at 25 square miles. These simulations indicate the sensitivity of results to variations in each of the three variables. The third group of simulations examines the effects of varied concentrations in the upstream basin on water-quality conditions downstream from the highway crossing. Variations in upstream water-quality conditions for three constituents (suspended sediment concentration, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus) are based on water-quality transport curves selected from among the 57 curves developed as part of this study to represent low-, medium-, and high-concentration statistics. Simulations completed for this third group also examine the potential effects of grass swale and bioretention BMP treatment on total nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations in highway runoff. The BMP performance data from the NCDOT research reports were applied in this group of simulations.

The stochastic mass-balance approach used in SELDM analyses and simulations provides a strong tool for engineers and water-resource managers to use in exploring a wide range of possible hydrologic and water-quality inputs and their effects on downstream water quality. The results of this study can not only aid engineers and managers in planning for potential adverse effects of runoff at site-specific locations, they can also help the USGS and other Federal and State agencies with oversight responsibilities in stormwater-quality issues to continue gathering data on potential water-quality effects in receiving streams.

Suggested Citation

Weaver, J.C., Granato, G.E., and Fitzgerald, S.A., 2019, Assessing water quality from highway runoff at selected sites in North Carolina with the Stochastic Empirical Loading and Dilution Model (SELDM) (ver 1.1, July 2, 2019): U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2019–5031, 99 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Simulating Stormflow Hydrology in North Carolina
  • Simulating Stormflow Water Quality
  • Simulating Highway-Runoff Treatment
  • Example Simulations of the North Carolina-Enhanced SELDM
  • Summary and Conclusions
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Assessing water quality from highway runoff at selected sites in North Carolina with the Stochastic Empirical Loading and Dilution Model (SELDM)
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2019-5031
DOI 10.3133/sir20195031
Edition Version 1.0: May 2019; Version 1.1: July 2019
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) New England Water Science Center, North Carolina Water Science Center, South Atlantic Water Science Center
Description Report: x, 99 p.; Data Releases
Country United States
State North Carolina
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details