Report Abstract


By Scott K. Anderholm

This report describes the quality of shallow ground water in an agricultural area in the San Luis Valley, Colorado, and discusses how natural and human factors affect the quality of shallow ground water. Thirty-five wells were installed, and water samples were collected from these wells and analyzed for selected dissolved common constituents, nutrients, trace elements, radionuclides, and synthetic organic compounds.

The San Luis Valley is a high intermontane valley that is partially drained by the Rio Grande. The San Luis Valley land-use study area was limited to a part of the valley where the depth to water is generally less than 25 feet. The area where the 35 monitor wells were installed was further limited to the part of the study area where center-pivot overhead sprinklers are used to irrigate crops. Precipitation, runoff from adjacent mountainous areas, and ground-water inflow from the adjacent mountainous areas are the main sources of water to the aquifers in the San Luis Valley. Discharge of water from the shallow, unconfined aquifer in the valley is mainly from evapotranspiration. The dominant land use in the San Luis Valley is agriculture, although nonirrigated land and residential land are interspersed with agricultural land. Alfalfa, native hay, barley, wheat, potatoes, and other vegetables are the main crops.

Dissolved-solids concentrations in shallow ground water sampled ranged from 75 to 1,960 milligrams per liter. The largest median concentration of cations was for calcium, and the largest median concentration of anions was for bicarbonate in shallow ground water in the San Luis Valley. Calcium concentrations ranged from 7.5 to 300 milligrams per liter, and bicarbonate concentrations ranged from 28 to 451 milligrams per liter. Nitrite plus nitrate concentrations ranged from less than 0.1 to 58 milligrams per liter as N; water from 11 wells had nitrite plus nitrate concentrations greater than 10 milligrams per liter as N. With the exception of the following trace elements--aluminum, barium, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and uranium--the concentrations of trace elements were less than 10 micrograms per liter in 90 percent of the samples. All trace-element concentrations measured were below the maximum contaminant levels set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Five samples exceeded the proposed maximum contaminant level of 0.02 milligram per liter for uranium. All samples collected exceeded the proposed maximum contaminant level for radon-222. The volatile organic compound methyltertbutylether was detected in one sample at a concentration of 0.6 microgram per liter. Of the pesticides analyzed for, one or more were detected in water from 5 of the 35 wells sampled. Metribuzin was the most commonly detected pesticide and was detected in water from three wells at concentrations ranging from an estimated 0.005 to 0.017 microgram per liter. Metolachlor (detected in one sample at a concentration of 0.072 microgram per liter), prometon (detected in one sample at a concentration of 0.01 microgram per liter), and p,p'-DDE (detected in one sample at an estimated concentration of 0.002 microgram per liter) were the other pesticides detected. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency lifetime health advisory for metolachlor, metribuzin, and prometon is 100 micrograms per liter, which is much larger than the concentrations measured in the shallow ground water sampled for this study.

The elevated nitrite plus nitrate concentrations in shallow ground water are indicative of leaching of fertilizers from the land surface. This conclusion is consistent with conclusions made in other investigations of the San Luis Valley. On the basis of areal distribution and range of trace-element concentrations, human activities have not caused widespread trace-element contamination in the shallow ground water. The main factors affecting trace-element concentrations in shallow ground water are solubility equilibria, variation in the distribution of minerals in the aquifer, formation of organic complexes, formation of carbonate complexes, and the oxidation-reduction state of the ground water/aquifer. Gross alpha and gross beta activities measured in ground water are from naturally occurring elements (primarily uranium and potassium-40). Relatively few synthetic organic compounds were detected in shallow ground water, indicating that human activities have not resulted in widespread contamination of the shallow part of the aquifer by synthetic organic compounds.

Abstract from Water-Resources Investigations Report 96-4144


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