Concentrations of Dissolved Solids and Nutrients in Water Sources and Selected Streams of the Santa Ana Basin, California, October 1998-September 2001

By Robert Kent and Kenneth Belitz



Water–Resources Investigations Report 03-4326

Sacramento, California 2004

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

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     Concentrations of total dissolved solids (TDS) and nutrients in selected Santa Ana Basin streams were examined as a function of water source. The principal water sources are mountain runoff, wastewater, urban runoff, and stormflow. Rising ground water also enters basin streams in some reaches. Data were collected from October 1998 to September 2001 from 6 fixed sites (including a mountain site), 6 additional mountain sites (including an alpine indicator site), and more than 20 synoptic sites. The fixed mountain site on the Santa Ana River near Mentone appears to be a good representative of reference conditions for water entering the basin.

     TDS can be related to water source. The median TDS concentration in base-flow samples from mountain sites was 200 mg/L (milligrams per liter). Base-flow TDS concentrations from sites on the valley floor typically ranged from 400 to 600 mg/L; base flow to most of these sites is predominantly treated wastewater, with minor contributions of rising ground water and urban runoff. Sparse data suggest that TDS concentrations in urban runoff are about 300 mg/L. TDS concentrations appear to increase on a downstream gradient along the main stem of the Santa Ana River, regardless of source inputs.

     The major-ion compositions observed in samples from the different sites can be related to water source, as well as to in-stream processes in the basin. Water compositions from mountain sites are categorized into two groups: one group had a composition close to that of the alpine indicator site high in the watershed, and another group had ionic characteristics closer to those in tributaries on the valley floor. The water composition at Warm Creek, a tributary urban indicator site, was highly variable but approximately intermediate to the compositions of the upgradient mountain sites. Water compositions at the Prado Dam and Imperial Highway sites, located 11 miles apart on the Santa Ana River, were similar to one another and appeared to be a mixture of the waters of the upstream sites, Santa Ana River at MWD Crossing, Cucamonga Creek, and Warm Creek.

     Rainfall usually dilutes stream TDS concentrations. The median TDS concentration in all storm-event discrete samples was 260 mg/L. The median flow-weighted average TDS concentration for stormflow, based on continuous measurement of specific conductance and hydrograph separation of the continuous discharge record, was 190 mg/L. However, stormflow TDS concentrations were variable, and depended on whether the storm was associated with a relatively small or large rainfall event. TDS concentrations in stormflow associated with relatively small events ranged from about 50 to 600 mg/L with a median of 220 mg/L, whereas concentrations in stormflow associated with relatively large events ranged from about 40 to 300 mg/L with a median of 100 mg/L.

     From the perspective of water managers, the nutrient species of highest concern in Santa Ana Basin streams is nitrate. Most mountain streams had median base-flow concentrations of nitrate below 0.3 mg/L as nitrogen. Nitrate concentrations in both urban runoff and stormflow were near 1 mg/L, which is close to the level found in rainfall for the region. In fact, results from this study suggest that much of the nitrate load in urban storm runoff comes from rainwater. Nitrate concentrations in the Santa Ana River and its major tributaries are highest downstream from wastewater inputs, where median base-flow concentrations of nitrite+nitrate ranged from about 5 to 7 mg/L. About 4 percent of samples collected from sites receiving treated wastewater had nitrate concentrations greater than 10 mg/L. Rising ground water also appears to have high nitrate concentrations (greater than 10 mg/L) in some reaches of the river. Concentrations of other nitrogen species were much lower than nitrate concentrations in base-flow samples. However, storm events increased concentrations and the proportion of organic nitrogen, ammonia, and nitrite relative to nitrate.

     Concentrations of total phosphorus at sites upstream from wastewater inputs were usually at or below 0.03 mg/L as phosphorus. Total phosphorus concentrations in base-flow samples from fixed sites below wastewater inputs were typically near 1 mg/L, indicating a departure from reference conditions and a potential for phosphorus-driven eutrophication.




Purpose and Scope

Description of Study Area

Study Design

Fixed Sites

Mountain Sites

Synoptic Study Sites


Sample Collection

Sample Processing

Laboratory Analyses

Data Analysis

Quality Control

Major-Ion Analyses

Total Dissolved Solids

Total Dissolved Solids and Concentrations of Some Individual Constituents Compared with Water-Quality Criteria

Base-Flow Total Dissolved Solids Concentration by Water Source

Total Dissolved Solids in Stormflow

Comparison of Calculated Mean-Daily, Discrete, and Flow-Weighted Average Stormflow Total Dissolved Solids Concentrations

Concentrations of Selected Nutrients

Total Nitrogen and Nitrogen Speciation

Base-Flow Nitrate Concentrations by Water Source

Nitrate in Stormflow


Organic Nitrogen


Quality-Control Results


References Cited

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