Temporal and Spatial Variability of Water Quality in the San Antonio Segment of the Edwards Aquifer Recharge Zone, Texas, With an Emphasis on Periods of Groundwater Recharge, September 2017–July 2019

Scientific Investigations Report 2020-5033
Prepared in cooperation with the City of San Antonio
By: , and 



Ongoing urbanization on the Edwards aquifer recharge zone in the greater San Antonio area raises concern about the potential adverse effects on the public water supply from development. To address this concern, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the City of San Antonio, studied patterns of temporal and spatial changes in water quality at selected surface-water and groundwater sites in the Edwards aquifer recharge zone, with an emphasis on changes during periods of groundwater recharge. Water-quality characteristics were continuously monitored and discrete water samples were collected at two sets of paired surface-water (stream) and groundwater (well) sites during a 2-year period (2017–19) that included relatively dry conditions and a large recharge event in September 2018 when as much as 16 inches of rain fell in parts of the study area.

Continuous monitoring of water-level altitude, specific conductance, and concentrations of nitrate in two wells completed in the Edwards aquifer provided high-resolution data showing detailed changes in water quality across a broad range of hydrologic conditions. Water levels in the wells responded rapidly (within hours to days) to recharge from both small and large rainfall and runoff events; changes in groundwater quality as a consequence of the influx of surface-derived recharge were indicated by changes in values of the monitored characteristics. A broad range in measured values of the stable isotopes of water expressed as delta deuterium and delta oxygen-18 in the water samples collected from two streams (Salado and West Elm Creeks), in comparison to the tight clustering of the values of these isotopes in groundwater samples, indicates that source waters (surface waters) of widely varying chemical characteristics become homogenized within the aquifer system.

Concentrations of major ions, trace ions, and nutrient concentrations in stormwater runoff indicate a combination of land-derived and rainfall-derived constituents. The distribution of concentrations of nitrogen species (nitrite, nitrate, and nitrogen in ammonia) among sampling sites transitions from a more variable distribution in stormwater runoff to a more uniform distribution in groundwater in which the dominant form is nitrate. Differences in nitrate isotopic composition and concentration in groundwater across the study area are likely controlled by the relative contributions of natural and anthropogenic nitrogen (with the anthropogenic nitrogen component including a wastewater source) and by the process of nitrification. Among all measured constituents, pesticides detected in discrete stormwater-runoff samples provided the clearest indication that urbanization was adversely affecting water quality; specifically, the more urbanized surface-water site had a greater number of detections and greater variety of detected pesticides. Though temporal variability in the numbers and types of pesticides was evident, the overall proportion of pesticides was dominated by triazine herbicides including atrazine, atrazine degradates, and simazine. The observed hydrologic responses to rainfall and corresponding changes in water quality in wells are thought to result from the direct hydrologic connectivity of surface water and unconfined groundwater; however, patterns of groundwater-quality change indicate mixing from multiple sources such as ambient groundwater, recent surface-derived recharge, and possibly inflow from other aquifers. Therefore, understanding the connection between urbanization and groundwater quality cannot be inferred from the input of stormwater runoff alone as changes related to local and regional hydrologic conditions also need to be considered. It should be noted that a single study comparing the results from two site pairs is not able to support definitive conclusions about the full effect of urbanization on surface water/groundwater quality; however, this study does provide useful insights about the spatial and temporal variability of both stormwater runoff and unconfined groundwater that are consistent with expectations based on the current conceptual model that depicts the Edwards aquifer surface-water/groundwater system as a single water resource.

Suggested Citation

Opsahl, S.P., Musgrove, M., and Mecum, K.E., 2020, Temporal and spatial variability of water quality in the San Antonio segment of the Edwards aquifer recharge zone, Texas, with an emphasis on periods of groundwater recharge, September 2017–July 2019: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2020–5033, 37 p., https://doi.org/10.3133/sir20205033.

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Acknowledgments
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Study Methods
  • Climatic and Hydrologic Conditions During Study Period
  • Temporal and Spatial Variability in Continuously Monitored Water-Quality Data
  • Results of Analyses of Discrete Water Samples
  • Implications of Study Results for Edwards Aquifer Water Quality
  • Summary
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Temporal and spatial variability of water quality in the San Antonio segment of the Edwards aquifer recharge zone, Texas, with an emphasis on periods of groundwater recharge, September 2017–July 2019
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2020-5033
DOI 10.3133/sir20205033
Year Published 2020
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Texas Water Science Center
Description Report: x, 37 p.; Companion Report
Country United States
State Texas
City San Antonio
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details