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Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5100

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Relations That Affect the Probability and Prediction of Nitrate Concentration in Private Wells in the Glacial Aquifer System in the United States

By Kelly L. Warner and Terri L. Arnold


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Nitrate in private wells in the glacial aquifer system is a concern for an estimated 17 million people using private wells because of the proximity of many private wells to nitrogen sources. Yet, less than 5 percent of private wells sampled in this study contained nitrate in concentrations that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter) as N (nitrogen). However, this small group with nitrate concentrations above the USEPA MCL includes some of the highest nitrate concentrations detected in groundwater from private wells (77 mg/L). Median nitrate concentration measured in groundwater from private wells in the glacial aquifer system (0.11 mg/L as N) is lower than that in water from other unconsolidated aquifers and is not strongly related to surface sources of nitrate. Background concentration of nitrate is less than 1 mg/L as N.

Although overall nitrate concentration in private wells was low relative to the MCL, concentrations were highly variable over short distances and at various depths below land surface. Groundwater from wells in the glacial aquifer system at all depths was a mixture of old and young water. Oxidation and reduction potential changes with depth and groundwater age were important influences on nitrate concentrations in private wells.

A series of 10 logistic regression models was developed to estimate the probability of nitrate concentration above various thresholds. The threshold concentration (1 to 10 mg/L) affected the number of variables in the model. Fewer explanatory variables are needed to predict nitrate at higher threshold concentrations. The variables that were identified as significant predictors for nitrate concentration above 4 mg/L as N included well characteristics such as open-interval diameter, open-interval length, and depth to top of open interval. Environmental variables in the models were mean percent silt in soil, soil type, and mean depth to saturated soil. The 10-year mean (1992-2001) application rate of nitrogen fertilizer applied to farms was included as the potential source variable. A linear regression model also was developed to predict mean nitrate concentrations in well networks. The model is based on network averages because nitrate concentrations are highly variable over short distances. Using values for each of the predictor variables averaged by network (network mean value) from the logistic regression models, the linear regression model developed in this study predicted the mean nitrate concentration in well networks with a 95 percent confidence in predictions.

First posted October 18, 2010

For additional information contact:
Director, Illinois Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
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Urbana, IL 61801

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Suggested citation:

Warner, K.L., and Arnold, T.L., 2010, Relations that affect the probability and prediction of nitrate concentration in private wells in the glacial aquifer system in the United States: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5100, 55 p. plus appendixes.


1.0 Introduction and Hydrostratigraphy of the Glacial Aquifer System
2.0 Methods
3.0 Background Nitrate Concentration
4.0 Comparison of Nitrate Concentration in the Glacial Aquifer System and Other Principal Aquifers
5.0 Nitrate Sources
6.0 Nitrate Transport
7.0 Nitrate Concentrations in Private, Public, and Monitoring Wells
8.0 Statistical Models of Nitrate Concentration
9.0 Probability Of Nitrate Occurrence Above Threshold Concentrations
10.0 Prediction Of Mean Nitrate Concentrations In Networks Of Wells
11.0 Conclusions
References Cited
Appendixes 1-9

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