Water-Resources Investigations Report 02-4029

Ground-Water Quality and Discharge to Chincoteague and Sinepuxent Bays Adjacent to Assateague Island National Seashore, Maryland

By Jonathan J.A. Dillow, William S.L. Banks, and Michael J. Smigaj


This report is available as a pdf.



The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the National Park Serviceó Assateague Island National Seashore, conducted a study of the transport of nutrients in ground water in the surficial aquifer to estuaries adjacent to Assateague Island National Seashore. The study area includes Assateague Island, Chincoteague and Sinepuxent Bays, and the surface-water drainage basins of the bays. The purpose of the study was to describe ground-water-flow paths that carry freshwater to Chincoteague and Sinepuxent Bays and their tributary streams, and to collect water-quality data, particularly nutrient concentrations, associated with these fresh-water inputs.

Twenty-eight ground-water monitoring wells were drilled and constructed in the surficial aquifer and underlying confining bed within the study area to collect water-level and water-quality data at various depths. Base flow was measured and water-quality samples were collected at 17 non-tidal streams within the study area during the winters of 1999 and 2000 to determine the nutrient concentrations being transported to the coastal bays from each stream.

Ground-water-flow paths in the surficial aquifer are highly variable in length, ranging from less than 500 feet to longer than 5 miles. Many of the shorter flow paths end by discharging ground water as base flow to both the nontidal and tidal sections of streams, whereas longer flow paths end by discharging ground water directly to Chincoteague Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. Travel-times inferred from sulfur hexafluoride gas analyses for ground water following shorter flow paths before discharging to a stream range from less than 1 year to as long as 5 years. Ground water flowing along longer flow paths may take 30 years or more to reach the discharge point at the  end of the flow path.

Dissolved ammonia and dissolved nitrate are the dominant nutrients in ground water in the study area. Ammonia concentrations as high as 23.4 milligrams per liter as nitrogen were detected in anoxic ground-water samples. Nitrate concentrations in ground-water samples collected from wells ranged from below 0.05 milligram per liter as nitrogen to 15.5 milligrams per liter as nitrogen, and were highest in oxic ground water. Ammonia is less mobile in ground water than nitrate, so if it remains in the reduced state, transport to the discharge zones would be slower.

Nitrate concentrations in samples of stream base flow ranged from below 0.05 milligram per liter as nitrogen to 5.28 milligrams per liter as nitrogen, and showed a significant, positive correlation with the percentage of the stream basin area used to cultivate row crops. The majority of base-flow nitrate concentrations were above 0.4 milligram per liter as nitrogen, the upper limit of the  level found in natural waters in the study area, which indicates that the water quality of stream base flow at most sampled stream sites in the study area is affected by anthropogenic activities. Previous U.S. Geological Survey estimates of ground-water nitrate loads to Chincoteague and Sinepuxent Bays assumed an average stream base-flow nitrate concentration of 0.72 milligram per liter as nitrogen. The average stream base-flow nitrate concentration in samples collected during this study was 1.75 milligrams per liter as nitrogen. In addition, the presence of ammonia and organic nitrogen in stream base-flow samples may have implications for the eutrophication of the coastal bays, as these nitrogen species are available as nutrients to microorganisms and plants.






Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area


Hydrogeologic Setting


Bay-Bed Sediments


Ground-Water Occurrence and Quality

Ground-Water Data

Ground-Water Elevations

Water Quality

Ground-Water Age

Stream Base-Flow Data


Water Quality

Relation of Land Use to Water Quality

Ground-Water Discharge to the Bays

Ground-Water Gradients

Ground-Water-Flow Paths

Summary and Conclusions

References Cited

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For more information about USGS activities in Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia contact:


MD-DE-DC Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
8987 Yellow Brick Road
Baltimore, MD 21237
Telephone: (410) 238-4200
Fax: (410) 238-4210


or access the USGS Water Resources of Maryland, Delaware, and District of Columbia home page at:

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