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Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4106

Prepared in cooperation with Cedar Falls Utilities, Iowa

Concentrations and Possible Sources of Nitrate in Water From the Silurian-Devonian Aquifer, Cedar Falls, Iowa

By Bryan D. Schaap


Carbonate rocks of the Silurian-Devonian aquifer are the primary source of water for Cedar Falls, Iowa. A trend of increasing nitrate concentrations has been detected in samples from Cedar Falls water-supply wells 9 and 10, and 1998 nitrate concentrations were close to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Maximum Contaminant Level of 10 milligrams per liter as nitrogen in drinking water. These wells are located in an area where the Silurian-Devonian aquifer is covered by 90 feet of alluvial and glacial deposits. A study to evaluate the concentrations and sources of nitrate in Cedar Falls water-supply wells 9 and 10 was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with Cedar Falls Utilities.

Water-level measurements from a network of Silurian-Devonian observation wells in the Cedar Falls area were used to determine that ground-water flow in the Silurian-Devonian aquifer is generally from northwest to southeast and down the Cedar River Valley.

Water samples were collected from Cedar Falls water-supply wells 5, 9, and 10 and a domestic well in 1998. Chlorofluorocarbon analytical results indicate that time of recharge was the mid-1970’s for water from Cedar Falls water-supply well 9. Tritium analytical results indicate that the time of recharge was after 1953 for water from all four sampled wells. Nitrogen isotope rations in water from all four wells indicate that the primary source of nitrate in these wells is probably inorganic nitrogen fertilizer.

High nitrate concentrations in samples from Cedar Falls water-supply wells 9 and 10 are probably the result of nitrogen fertilizer applications in the area contributing recharge to the wells. Locally, the nitrate concentrations increase with depth, and the estimated time of recharge for the shallower well is later than the estimated time of recharge for the deeper wells. This suggests that the nitrate and water sampled in the Cedar Falls water-supply wells 9 and 10 are moving along predominantly horizontal ground-water flow paths through the Silurian-Devonian aquifer. Land-use data from 1941 through 1994 indicate that increased nitrate concentrations observed in water from wells 9 and 10 are not the results of increased agricultural land use near the wells. Within 1 mile of the water tower between wells 9 and 10, the proportion of agricultural land has remained fairly stable since 1941.

Nitrogen fertilizer sales in Iowa have been higher in recent years than during the mid- 1970’s. This suggests that nitrate concentrations in water from well 9 may persist at present levels or could increase in future years if fertilizer use increases and if higher nitrate concentrations are directly related to higher nitrogen fertilizer use.

For additional information contact:
Director, USGS Iowa Water Science Center
400 South Clinton Street, Room 269
Iowa City, IA 52244
(319) 337–4191

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Suggested citation:

Schaap, B.D., 1999, Concentrations and possible sources of nitrate in water from the Silurian-Devonian aquifer, Cedar Falls, Iowa: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4106, 19 p.





Concentrations of Nitrate

Possible Sources of Nitrate

Implications for Future Nitrate Concentrations


Selected References

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