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Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5176

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Contributions of Phosphorus from Groundwater to Streams in the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Valley and Ridge Physiographic Provinces, Eastern United States

By Judith M. Denver, Charles A. Cravotta III, Scott W. Ator, and Bruce D. Lindsey


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Phosphorus from natural and human sources is likely to be discharged from groundwater to streams in certain geochemical environments. Water-quality data collected from 1991 through 2007 in paired networks of groundwater and streams in different hydrogeologic and land-use settings of the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Valley and Ridge Physiographic Provinces in the eastern United States were compiled and analyzed to evaluate the sources, fate, and transport of phosphorus. The median concentrations of phosphate in groundwater from the crystalline and siliciclastic bedrock settings (0.017 and 0.020 milligrams per liter, respectively) generally were greater than the median for the carbonate setting (less than 0.01 milligrams per liter). In contrast, the median concentrations of dissolved phosphate in stream base flow from the crystalline and siliciclastic bedrock settings (0.010 and 0.014 milligrams per liter, respectively) were less than the median concentration for base-flow samples from the carbonate setting (0.020 milligrams per liter). Concentrations of phosphorus in many of the stream base-flow and groundwater samples exceeded ecological criteria for streams in the region.

Mineral dissolution was identified as the dominant source of phosphorus in the groundwater and stream base flow draining crystalline or siliciclastic bedrock in the study area. Low concentrations of dissolved phosphorus in groundwater from carbonate bedrock result from the precipitation of minerals and (or) from sorption to mineral surfaces along groundwater flow paths. Phosphorus concentrations are commonly elevated in stream base flow in areas underlain by carbonate bedrock, however, presumably derived from in-stream sources or from upland anthropogenic sources and transported along short, shallow groundwater flow paths.

Dissolved phosphate concentrations in groundwater were correlated positively with concentrations of silica and sodium, and negatively with alkalinity and concentrations of calcium, magnesium, chloride, nitrate, sulfate, iron, and aluminum. These associations can result from the dissolution of alkali feldspars containing phosphorus; the precipitation of apatite; the precipitation of calcite, iron hydroxide, and aluminum hydroxide with associated sorption of phosphate ions; and the potential for release of phosphate from iron-hydroxide and other iron minerals under reducing conditions. Anthropogenic sources of phosphate such as fertilizer and manure and processes such as biological uptake, evapotranspiration, and dilution also affect phosphorus concentrations. The phosphate concentrations in surface water were not correlated with the silica concentration, but were positively correlated with concentrations of major cations and anions, including chloride and nitrate, which could indicate anthropogenic sources and effects of evapotranspiration on surface-water quality. Mixing of older, mineralized groundwater with younger, less mineralized, but contaminated groundwater was identified as a critical factor affecting the quality of stream base flow. In-stream processing of nutrients by biological processes also likely increases the phosphorus concentration in surface waters.

Potential geologic contributions of phosphorus to groundwater and streams may be an important watershed-management consideration in certain hydrogeologic and geochemical environments. Geochemical controls effectively limit phosphorus transport through groundwater to streams in areas underlain by carbonate rocks; however, in crystalline and siliciclastic settings, phosphorus from mineral or human sources may be effectively transported by groundwater and contribute a substantial fraction to base-flow stream loads.

First posted January 20, 2010

For additional information contact:
Director, U.S. Geological Survey
Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Water Science Center
5522 Research Park Drive
Baltimore, MD 21228

For additional information about NAWQA studies in the Piedmont and Valley and Ridge aquifers contact:
Bruce D. Lindsey
U.S. Geological Survey
215 Limekiln Road
New Cumberland, PA 17070

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Suggested citation:

Denver, J.M., Cravotta, C.A., III, Ator, S.W., and Lindsey, B.D., 2010, Contributions of phosphorus from groundwater to streams in the Piedmont, Blue Ridge, and Valley and Ridge Physiographic Provinces, Eastern United States: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2010–5176, 38 p.





Purpose and Scope

Phosphorus Geochemistry

Description of Study Area

Physiography and Geology

Climate and Hydrology

Land Use and Anthropogenic Phosphorus Sources


Data Compilation

Graphical and Statistical Analyses

Geochemical Modeling

Contributions of Phosphorus from Groundwater to Streams

Phosphorus in Streams and Groundwater

Sources, Fate, and Transport of Phosphorus

Phosphorus from Natural Sources

Phosphorus from Human Sources

Fate and Transport of Phosphorus

Summary and Implications


Selected References

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