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Risk of Nitrate in Groundwaters of the United States--A National Perspective

By Bernard T. Nolan, Barbara C. Ruddy, Kerie J. Hitt, and Dennis R. Helsel

[Environmental Science and Technology, vol. 31, no. 8, 1997, p. 2229-2236]

Nitrate contamination of groundwater occurs in predictable patterns, based on findings of the U.S. Geological Survey's (USGS) National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. The NAWQA Program was begun in 1991 to describe the quality of the Nation's water resources, using nationally consistent methods. Variables affecting nitrate concentration in groundwater were grouped as "input" factors (population density and the amount of nitrogen contributed by fertilizer, manure, and atmospheric sources) and "aquifer vulnerability" factors (soil drainage characteristic and the ratio of woodland acres to cropland acres in agricultural areas) and compiled in a national map that shows patterns of risk for nitrate contamination of groundwater. Areas with high nitrogen input, well-drained soils, and low woodland to cropland ratio have the highest potential for contamination of shallow groundwater by nitrate. Groundwater nitrate data collected through 1992 from wells less than 100 ft deep generally verified the risk patterns shown on the national map. Median nitrate concentration was 0.2 mg/L in wells representing the low-risk group, and the maximum contaminant level (MCL) was exceeded in 3% of the wells. In contrast, median nitrate concentration was 4.8 mg/L in wells representing the high-risk group, and the MCL was exceeded in 25% of the wells.

Table of Contents
Limitations of national-scale risk analysis
Results and discussion
  The risk of nitrate contamination varies across the United States
  Nitrate in groundwater generally follows the risk map
  Well type influences groundwater quality
Literature cited

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