National Water Quality Assessment Program: Eastern Iowa Basins

Quality of Water in Alluvial Aquifers in Eastern Iowa

Mark E. Savoca, Eric M. Sadorf, S. Michael Linhart, and Kimberlee K. Barnes
Hydrologists
U.S. Geological Survey
Iowa City, Iowa

Proceedings from Agriculture and the Environment: State and Federal Initiatives conference at Iowa State University, March 5-7, 2001

The goal of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program is to assess the status and trends in the quality of the Nation's surface and ground water, and to better understand the natural and human factors affecting water quality. The Eastern Iowa Basins study unit encompasses an area of about 50,500 square kilometers (19,500 square miles) in eastern Iowa and southern Minnesota and is one of 59 study units in the NAWQA program. Land-use studies are an important component of the NAWQA program, and are designed to assess the concentration and distribution of water-quality constituents in recently recharged ground water associated with the most significant land use and hydrogeologic settings within a study unit. The focus of the land-use study in the Eastern Iowa Basins study unit is agricultural and urban land uses and alluvial aquifers. Agriculture is the dominant land use in the study unit. Urban areas, although not extensive, represent important potential source areas of contaminants associated with residential, commercial, and industrial activities. Alluvial aquifers are present throughout much of the study unit, and constitute a major ground-water supply that is susceptible to contamination from land-use activities.

Ground-water samples were collected from monitoring wells at 31 agricultural and 30 urban sites in the Eastern Iowa Basins study unit during June-August 1997 to evaluate the effects of land use and hydrogeology on the water quality of alluvial aquifers. Calcium, magnesium, and bicarbonate were the dominant ions in most samples and were likely derived from solution of carbonate minerals (calcite and dolomite) present in alluvial detrital deposits. Tritium-based ages indicate ground water was most likely recharged after the 1950's at all but one sampling site. Agricultural and urban land-use areas have remained relatively stable in the study area since the 1950's, therefore the effects of current land use should be reflected in ground water sampled during this study. Sodium and chloride concentrations were significantly higher in samples from urban areas, where roads are more numerous and road salts may be more frequently applied, than in agricultural areas. Nitrate was detected in 94 percent of samples from agricultural areas and 77 percent of samples from urban areas. Nitrate concentrations were significantly higher in agricultural areas than in urban areas and exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant level for drinking water (10 milligrams per liter as N) in 39 percent of samples from agricultural areas. Nitrate concentrations in samples from urban areas did not exceed the maximum contaminant level. Greater usage of fertilizers in agricultural areas most likely contributes to higher nitrate concentrations in samples from those areas.

Pesticides were detected in 84 percent of samples from agricultural areas and 70 percent from urban areas. Atrazine and metolachlor were the most frequently detected pesticides in samples from agricultural areas; atrazine and prometon were the most frequently detected pesticides in samples from urban areas. None of the pesticide concentrations exceeded U.S. Environmental Protection Agency maximum contaminant levels or lifetime health advisories for drinking water. Pesticide degradates were detected in 94 percent of samples from agricultural areas and 53 percent from urban areas. Metolachlor ethane sulfonic acid and deethylatrazine were the most frequently detected metabolites in samples from agricultural areas; metolachlor ethane sulfonic acid and alachlor ethane sulfonic acid were the most frequently detected degradates in samples from urban areas. Total degradate concentrations were significantly higher in samples from agricultural areas than in samples from urban areas. Total pesticide concentrations (parent compounds) tended to be higher in samples from agricultural areas; however, this difference was not statistically significant. Degradates constituted the major portion of the total residue concentration in the alluvial aquifer.

Volatile organic compounds were detected in 40 percent of samples from urban areas and 10 percent from agricultural areas. Methyl tert-butyl ether was the most commonly detected volatile organic compound and was present in 23 percent of samples from urban areas. Elevated concentrations (greater than 30 micrograms per liter) of methyl tert-butyl ether and BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene) in two samples from urban areas suggest the possible presence of point-source gasoline leaks or spills.

Factors other than land use may contribute to observed differences in water quality between and within agricultural and urban areas. Nitrate, atrazine, deethylatrazine, and deisopropylatrazine concentrations were significantly higher in shallow wells with sample intervals nearer the water table and in wells with thinner cumulative clay thickness above the sample intervals, suggesting that longer flow paths allow for greater residence time and increase opportunities for sorbtion, degradation, and dispersion which may contribute to decreases in nutrient and pesticide concentrations with depth. Nitrogen speciation was influenced by redox conditions. Nitrate concentrations were significantly higher in ground water with dissolved-oxygen concentrations in excess of 0.5 milligrams per liter. Ammonia concentrations were higher in ground water with dissolved-oxygen concentrations of 0.5 milligrams per liter or less, however, this relation was not statistically significant. The amount of available organic matter may limit denitrification rates. Elevated nitrate concentrations (greater than 2.0 mg/L) were significantly related to lower dissolved organic carbon concentrations in water samples from both agricultural and urban areas. A similar relation between nitrate concentrations (in water) and organic carbon concentrations (in aquifer material) also was observed but was not statistically significant.


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