Human-health concerns and economic considerations associated with meeting drinking-water standards motivated a study of the vulnerability of basin-fill aquifers to nitrate contamination and arsenic enrichment in the southwestern United States. Statistical models were developed by using the random forest classifier algorithm to predict concentrations of nitrate and arsenic across a model grid representing about 190,600 square miles of basin-fill aquifers in parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah. The statistical models, referred to as classifiers, reflect natural and human-related factors that affect aquifer vulnerability to contamination and relate nitrate and arsenic concentrations to explanatory variables representing local- and basin-scale measures of source and aquifer susceptibility conditions. Geochemical variables were not used in concentration predictions because they were not available for the entire study area. The models were calibrated to assess model accuracy on the basis of measured values.
Only 2 percent of the area underlain by basin-fill aquifers in the study area was predicted to equal or exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency drinking-water standard for nitrate as N (10 milligrams per liter), whereas 43 percent of the area was predicted to equal or exceed the standard for arsenic (10 micrograms per liter). Areas predicted to equal or exceed the drinking-water standard for nitrate include basins in central Arizona near Phoenix; the San Joaquin Valley, the Santa Ana Inland, and San Jacinto Basins of California; and the San Luis Valley of Colorado. Much of the area predicted to equal or exceed the drinking-water standard for arsenic is within a belt of basins along the western portion of the Basin and Range Physiographic Province that includes almost all of Nevada and parts of California and Arizona. Predicted nitrate and arsenic concentrations are substantially lower than the drinking-water standards in much of the study area-about 93 percent of the area underlain by basin-fill aquifers was less than one-half the standard for nitrate as N (5.0 milligrams per liter), and 50 percent was less than one-half the standard for arsenic (5.0 micrograms per liter). The predicted concentrations and the improved understanding of the susceptibility and vulnerability of southwestern basin-fill aquifers to nitrate contamination and arsenic enrichment can be used by water managers as a qualitative tool to assess and protect the quality of groundwater resources in the Southwest.