Water-Resources Investigations Report 98-4059

Ground-Water Discharge and Base-Flow Nitrate Loads of Nontidal Streams, and Their Relation to a Hydrogeomorphic Classification of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, Middle Atlantic Coast

By Leon Joseph Bachman, Bruce Lindsey, John Brakebill, and David S. Powars


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Existing data on base-flow and groundwater nitrate loads were compiled and analyzed to assess the significance of groundwater discharge as a source of the nitrate load to nontidal streams of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. These estimates were then related to hydrogeomorphic settings based on lithology and physiographic province to provide insight on the areal distribution of ground-water discharge. Base-flow nitrate load accounted for 26 to about 100 percent of total-flow nitrate load, with a median value of 56 percent, and it accounted for 17 to 80 percent of total-flow total-nitrogen load, with a median value of 48 percent.

Hydrograph separations were conducted on continuous streamflow records from 276 gaging stations within the watershed. The values for base flow thus calculated were considered an estimate of ground-water discharge. The ratio of base flow to total flow provided an estimate of the relative importance of ground-water discharge within a basin.

Base-flow nitrate loads, total-flow nitrate loads, and total-flow total-nitrogen loads were previously computed from water-quality and discharge measurements by use of a regression model. Base-flow nitrate loads were available from 78 stations, total-flow nitrate loads were available from 86 stations, and total-flow total-nitrogen loads were available for 48 stations. The percentage of base-flow nitrate load to total-flow nitrate load could be computed for 57 stations, whereas the percentage of base-flow nitrate load to totalflow total-nitrogen load could be computed for 36 stations. These loads were divided by the basin area to obtain yields, which were used to compare the nitrate discharge from basins of different sizes.

The results indicate that ground-water discharge is a significant source of water and nitrate to the total streamflow and nitrate load. Base flow accounted for 16 to 92 percent of total streamflow at the 276 sampling sites, with a median value of 54 percent. It is estimated that of the 50 billion gallons of water that reaches the Chesapeake Bay each day, nearly 27 billion gallons is base flow.

Generalized lithology (siliciclastic, carbonate, crystalline, and unconsolidated) was combined with physiographic province (the Appalachian Plateau, the Valley and Ridge, the Blue Ridge, the Piedmont, including the Mesozoic Lowland section, and the Coastal Plain) to delineate 11 hydrogeomorphic regions. Areal variation of base flow and base-flow nitrate yield were assessed by means of nonparametric, one-way analysis of variance on basins grouped by the dominant hydrogeomorphic region and by correlation analysis of base flow or base-flow nitrate yield with the percentage of land area of a given hydrogeomorphic region within a basin.

Base flow appeared to have a significant relation to the hydrogeomorphic regions. The highest percentages of base flow were found in areas underlain by carbonate rock, crystalline rock with relatively low relief, and unconsolidated sediments. Lower percentages were found in areas underlain by siliclastic rocks and crystalline rocks with relatively high relief.

The relation between base-flow nitrate yield and hydrogeomorphic region is less clear. Although there is a relation between low nitrate yields and areas underlain by highrelief siliciclastic rocks, and a relation between high yields and carbonate rocks, much of this relation can be explained by the strong association between the hydrogeomorphic units and land use. In addition, most basins are mixtures of several hydrogeomorphic regions, so the nitrate yield from a basin depends on a large number of complex interacting factors. These unclear results indicate that the sample of available data used here may not be adequate to fully assess the relation between base-flow nitrate yield and the hydrogeomorphic setting of the basin. The results appear to show, however, that ground-water discharge is an important component of the total nontidal streamflow, and that ground-water discharge varies according to the hydrogeomorphic regions. Environmental management of the nontidal streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed will thus have to consider the prevention of nutrient infiltration into aquifers as well as prevention of overland runoff of highnitrogen waters.





Description of Study Area

Previous investigations


Methods of investigation

Compilation of digital geographic data

Compilation of streamflow data

Compilation of water-quality data

Data analysis

Estimation of base flow using hydrograph separation

Statistical analysis

Delineation of hydrogeomorphic regions

Ground-water discharge

Ground-water nitrate loads

Relation between ground-water discharge, base-flow nitrate yields and hydrogeomorphic regions

Summary and conclusions

References cited


Streamflow, base-flow, and nitrogen-yield data for basins within the

Chesapeake Bay watershed, 1972-96

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