Spatial and temporal variations in nitrate contamination of a rural aquifer, California

Journal Article (Academic article)

The quality of groundwater in the Sierra Pelona watershed, California is examined as an example of a small rural groundwater basin in a mountainous area of arid climate. Water quality in this region has been seriously impacted by nitrate (NO3) contamination with 42% of wells sampled exceeding the EPA public drinking water maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 10 mg/L as NO3-N at some point during 1992-1993. High NO3-N concentrations reported from this region suggest degradation of water quality due to anthropogenic activity. Dissolved ion concentrations, particularly NO3, chloride and calcium varied radically in 55% of well waters sampled prior to, following, and mouths after an unusually wet winter. Our extensive well sampling program, chemical results and delineation of spatial and temporal NO3-N variation allow us to constrain possible contamination sources and transport mechanisms active in the Sierra Pelona basin. The spatial distribution and temporal variability of NO3 indicate three patterns of contamination: (i) isolated wells impacted by numerous, localized NO3 sources which erratically affect a single well without significantly contaminating neighboring ones; (ii) a tight cluster of wells, unusually low in other ions but consistently high in NO3; (iii) moderate and generally consistent NO3 concentrations, found over a large, diffuse region of the Sierra Pelona alluvial aquifer. An understanding of the differing NO3 source(s) and contamination mode(s) that contribute to these observed contaminant patterns is critical to development and success of any strategy for contaminant mitigation and/or remediation.

Duke Authors

Cited Authors

  • Williams, AE; Johnson, JA; Lund, LJ; Kabala, ZJ

Published Date

  • January 1, 1998

Published In

  • Journal of Environmental Quality

Volume / Issue

  • 27 / 5

Start / End Page

  • 1147 - 1157