Georgia Water Science Center

USGS Water-Resources Investigations Report 96-4101


This report is available online in pdf format (10 MB): USGS WRIR 96-4101 (Opens the PDF file in a new window. )

Elizabeth A. Frick, Gary R. Buell, and Evelyn E. Hopkins

U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 96-4101, 120 pages (Published 1996)


In 1991, the U.S. Geological Survey began full-scale implementation of the National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program. One of the initial tasks of the NAWQA program is to compile and evaluate existing data from individual study units. Available nutrient data from 1972 through 1990 water years were used to estimate nutrient sources to the Apalachicola–Chattahoochee–Flint (ACF) River basin and describe the presence, distribution, and transport of nutrients in surface and ground waters.

In 1990, about 2,500 tons of nitrogen and 1,100 tons of phosphorus were discharged as point-source loads by 127 municipal wastewater-treatment facilities (WWTF). Nonpoint-source inputs, an unknown percentage of which entered the hydrologic system, included about 120,000 tons of nitrogen and 28,000 tons of phosphorus from animal manure; 82,000 tons of nitrogen and 20,000 tons of phosphorus applied as fertilizer; and 24,000 tons of nitrogen from atmospheric deposition. Estimates of nutrient input to the ACF River basin were not made for natural sources and for the following anthropogenic sources: industrial-wastewater effluent; storm drains; sanitary and combined sewer outflows; and runoff from agricultural, urban, and suburban areas. Nutrient outflow from the Apalachicola River into Apalachicola Bay, Fla., was about 13 percent of estimated nitrogen sources and about 3 percent of estimated total-phosphorus sources in the ACF River basin.

For 1972–90, nutrient concentrations in surface water were high enough to warrant concerns about accelerated eutrophication based on total-phosphorus concentrations and to warrant concerns intermittently about toxicity to fish based on dissolved-ammonia concentrations downstream of wastewater-treatment outfalls from Metropolitan Atlanta and LaGrange, Ga. Many improvements to the water quality of the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers in the 1980’s and early 1990’s can be directly attributed to improvements in WWTF, legislation directed at decreasing point-source loads of phosphorus, and changes in locations of wastewater-treatment outfalls. However, limited data indicate that nonpoint-source inputs increased upstream of Atlanta and in the Chipola River watershed.

Significant increases in nutrient concentrations, loads, and yields occurred from upstream to downstream of the metropolitan areas of Atlanta, Ga.; Columbus, Ga., and Phenix City, Ala.; and Albany, Ga. The highest mean-annual yields estimated in the ACF River basin for total nitrogen (2.9 tons per square mile (tons/mi2)), total-inorganic nitrogen (2.0 tons/mi2), dissolved ammonia (1.1 tons/mi2), and total phosphorus (0.75 tons/mi2) were downstream of Atlanta.

Most significant trends in nutrient-concentration data from 1980–90 in the Chattahoochee River and the Middle and Lower Flint River basins were increasing, except dissolved ammonia which decreased at several sampling sites in reaches downstream of Atlanta, Columbus and Phenix City, and Albany. At sampling sites on the Chattahoochee and Flint Rivers downstream of Atlanta and Albany, decreasing trends in dissolved-ammonia concentration and increasing trends in dissolved-nitrate concentration were the result of improved wastewater treatment at WWTF. Dissolved-ammonia concentrations decreased and dissolved-nitrate concentrations increased along river reaches downstream of wastewater-treatment facility outfalls for Atlanta and Albany because of nitrification of ammonia to nitrate. Increasing trends in total-phosphorus concentrations are an accurate representation of data for the period 1980–90. However, legislated restrictions on the use of phosphate detergents and improvements to WWTF in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, resulted in substantial reductions of phosphorus concentrations in wastewater effluent and in rivers at many locations in the 1990’s.

Reservoirs affect nutrient transport because of uptake by phytoplankton and aquatic plants, denitrification,and accumulation of phosphorus associated with sediment in reservoirs. Yields of total-inorganic nitrogen, dissolved ammonia, dissolved nitrate, and total phosphorus decreased between sampling sites upstream and downstream of four reservoirs on the Chattahoochee River. The only exception was the yield of dissolved ammonia increased slightly from upstream to downstream of Lake Sidney Lanier. Much of the nutrient load in the Chattahoochee River downstream of Atlanta is utilized by algae or settles out primarily in West Point Lake, and to a lesser extent, in Lake Harding and Walter F. George Reservoir. In general, the Flint River arm of Lake Seminole had significantly higher concentrations of nutrients than the Chattahoochee River arm of Lake Seminole, which may be the result of the large percentage of the Middle and Lower Chattahoochee River in backwater from reservoirs, the absence of reservoirs on the Flint River downstream of Albany until Lake Seminole, and nonpoint-source inputs of nutrients from intensively farmed areas in the Lower Flint River basin. Decreases in dissolved-ammonia, dissolved-nitrate, and total-phosphorus concentrations in reservoirs and backwater along the Chattahoochee River from West Point Lake to Lake Seminole during summer months are related to the seasonality of phytoplankton production.

The Chipola River had the highest yields of dissolved nitrate (1.2 tons/mi2) estimated in the ACF River basin. Estimated loads of dissolved nitrate increased fairly steadily from 500 to 1,500 tons per year from 1972–90. These factors strongly suggest an agricultural nonpoint source of elevated dissolved-nitrate concentrations from increased irrigated agriculture and fertilizer applications in the Chipola River watershed.

Analyses of nutrients in ground water within the ACF River basin for 1972–90 water years were restricted because of limited available data. The distribution of nitrate concentrations in the ACF River basin for 1972–90 water years included 10 percent of wells and 6 percent of springs with concentrations that probably have elevated nitrate concentrations (3.1 to 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L)), and 1 percent of wells with median nitrate concentrations exceeding the maximum contaminant level of 10 mg/L. Dissolved-nitrate concentrations were significantly lower in the Providence aquifer than in the Floridan aquifer system and the crystalline-rock aquifers. Dissolved-nitrate concentrations in wells used for public supply were significantly lower than in wells used for domestic use or unused wells.




Purpose and scope

Description of Apalachicola–Chattahoochee–Flint River basin

Location and physiography

Climate and hydrologic setting

Population, land use, and water use


Nutrient sources

Point-source loads

Municipal-wastewater effluent

Nonpoint-source inputs

Animal manure


Atmospheric deposition

Analysis of nutrient water-quality data

Nutrient water-quality standards, health advisories, and criteria

Sources of nutrient water-quality data

Assessment approach

Data compilation and screening

Distribution of sampling sites

Nutrients in surface water

Relation of concentration to stream discharge

Downstream variations in concentrations

Seasonal variations in concentrations

Temporal trends in concentrations

Annual loads and mean annual yields

Nutrients in ground water

Nitrate concentrations

Nutrient distributions by aquifer and well depth

Nutrient distributions by water-use category





This report is available online in pdf format (10 MB): USGS WRIR 96-4101 (Opens the PDF file in a new window. )
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