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Baseline water quality of an area undergoing shale-gas development in the Muskingum River watershed, Ohio, 2015–16

November 27, 2018

In 2015–16, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District, led a study to assess baseline (2015–16) surface-water quality in six lake drainage basins within the Muskingum River watershed that are in the early years of shale-gas development. In 2015, 9 of the 10 most active counties in Ohio for oil and gas development were wholly or partially within the Muskingum River watershed. In addition to shale gas development, the area has a history of conventional oil and gas development and coal mining.

In all, 30 surface-water sites were sampled: 20 in tributaries flowing to the lakes, 4 in lakes themselves, and 6 downstream of the lakes. At each of the 30 sites, 6 samples were collected to characterize surface-water chemistry throughout a range of hydrologic conditions. The sampling generally occurred during low flows (periods of greater groundwater contribution) rather than during runoff events (periods of high stream stage).

Trilinear diagrams of major ion chemistry revealed three main types of water in the study area―sulfate-dominated waters, bicarbonate-dominated waters, and waters with mixed bicarbonate and chloride anions. Most sites produced samples of bicarbonate-dominated water, and 11 sites produced samples with sulfate-type waters. Mixed bicarbonate and chloride waters were found in samples from two of the six lake drainage basins studied.

The baseline (2015–16) assessment of surface-water quality in the study area indicated that few water-chemistry constituents and properties occurred at concentrations or levels that would adversely affect aquatic organisms. Chemical-specific, aquatic life use criteria were not met in only three instances: two were for total dissolved solids at sites likely impacted by coal mining in their drainage basins (hereafter referred to as “mine-impacted sites”), and one was for dissolved oxygen.

Mine drainage from historical coal mining in the region likely affected the quality of about one-third of the streams sampled. To simplify interpretation of water-chemistry results, 11 sites with sulfate-type water were identified as mine-impacted sites based on water-quality criteria established by Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Mineral Resources Management, and separated out for subsequent statistical analysis. Concentrations or levels of bicarbonate, boron, calcium, carbonate, total dissolved solids, fluoride, magnesium, lithium, pH, potassium, sodium, specific conductance, strontium, sulfate, and suspended sediment in water were higher (significance level of 0.05) at mine-impacted stream sites than at non-mine-impacted stream sites.

An accidental release of oil- and gas-related brines could increase salinity (sodium and chloride), the concentration of total dissolved solids in shallow groundwater and streams, and specific conductance. For this study, chloride concentrations in the study area ranged from 2.12 to 76.1 milligrams per liter. Sources of chloride in water samples were evaluated using binary mixing curves and ratios of chloride to bromide. These ratios indicated that 13 samples from 3 sites in the drainage basin that contained the highest density of conventional oil and gas wells in the study, as well as 4 samples collected from other drainage basins, likely contained a component of brine. Concentrations or levels of barium, bromide, chloride, iron, lithium, manganese, and sodium were significantly higher (alpha = 0.05) in samples with a component of brine than in samples without a component of brine.

Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene (BTEX), compounds that occur naturally in crude oil, made up 24 of the 45 detections (53 percent) of volatile organic compounds in the study area. The BTEX detections were not associated with sites containing a component of brine. The only volatile organic compound detected in any of the 17 samples that contained a component of brine was acetone, detected in 3 (18 percent) of these samples and in 11 percent of samples not containing a component of brine. Considering that BTEX are gasoline hydrocarbons and that most of the detections occurred during warmer months in and around the lakes, the BTEX detections likely are associated with increases in outdoor activities such as automobile and boating traffic.

Radium-226 and radium-228 were included in the list of analytes for this study because production water from shale-gas drilling can contain these naturally occurring radioactive materials. Concentrations of radium-226 exceeded background levels in only two surface-water samples. Concentrations of radium-228 exceeded background levels in one surface-water sample.

A brine signature potentially indicative of oil and gas contamination was detected in samples collected at two sites that contained active or plugged waste injection wells, or both. Results from the study indicated significant differences in the median concentrations of bromide, chloride, lithium, manganese, sodium, and total dissolved nitrogen between sites with and without injection wells in their drainage areas. Median concentrations of bromide, chloride, lithium, and sodium, which are common oil- and gas-related contaminants, were higher at sites with injection wells in their drainage areas compared to sites without injection wells.

Historical (1960s, 1970s, and 1980s) chloride concentrations and streamflow data at or near five of the six sampling sites downstream from each lake dam were compared to current (2015–16) values. An analysis of covariance was done to test the effects of streamflow, time (decade), and the combined effects (cross product) of streamflow and time on chloride concentrations. Those analyses indicated that streamflow was not significant in explaining the variation in chloride concentration, likely because streamflow in those locations is controlled by dam operations; therefore, association between runoff-generating events and streamflow is less direct than in unregulated streams. From the 1980s to the study period (2015–16), data for three of the five lakes indicated an increase in chloride concentrations. The comparison of historical and current (2015–16) study data from samples collected at another lake indicated that chloride concentrations increased from the 1960s to the 1970s, but concentrations in the 1970s and 2015–16 were similar even though 13 samples from this lake drainage basin were classified as having a component of brine. Median chloride concentrations for the fifth lake, however, seemed to decrease from the 1980s to 2015–16.

Publication Year 2018
Title Baseline water quality of an area undergoing shale-gas development in the Muskingum River watershed, Ohio, 2015–16
DOI 10.3133/sir20185113
Authors S. Alex. Covert, Martha L. Jagucki, Carrie A. Huitger
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5113
Index ID sir20185113
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Water Science Center