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The distribution and modeling of nitrate transport in the Carson Valley alluvial aquifer, Douglas County, Nevada

September 19, 2013

Residents of Carson Valley in Douglas County, Nevada, rely on groundwater from an alluvial aquifer for domestic use and agricultural irrigation. Since the 1970s, there has been a rapid increase in population in several parts of the valley that rely on domestic wells for drinking water and septic systems for treatment of household waste. As a result, the density of septic systems in the developed areas is greater than one septic system per 3 acres, and the majority of the domestic wells are shallow (screened within 250 feet of the land surface).

The distribution of nitrate as nitrogen (referred to herein as nitrate-N) concentrations in groundwater was determined by collecting more than 200 samples from 8 land-use categories: single family residential, multifamily residential, rural (including land use for agriculture), vacant land, commercial, industrial, utilities, and unclassified. Nitrate-N concentrations ranged from below detection (less than 0.05 milligrams per liter) to 18 milligrams per liter. The results of nitrate-N concentrations that were sampled from three wells equalled or exceeded the maximum contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nitrate-N concentrations in sampled wells showed a positive correlation between elevated nitrate-N concentrations and the percentage of single-family land use and septic-system density. Wells sampled in other land-use categories did not have any correlation to nitrate-N concentrations. In areas with greater than 50-percent single-family land use, nitrate-N concentrations were two times greater than in areas with less than 50 percent single-family land use. Nitrate-N concentrations in groundwater near septic systems that had been used more than 20 years were more than two times greater than in areas where septic systems had been used less than 20 years. Lower nitrate-N concentrations in the areas where septic systems were less than 20 years old probably result from temporary storage of nitrogen leaching from septic systems into the unsaturated zone.

In areas where septic systems are abundant, nitrate-N concentrations were predicted to 2059 by using numerical models within the Ruhenstroth and Johnson Lane subdivisions in the Carson Valley. Model results indicated that nitrate-N concentrations will continue to increase and could exceed the maximum contaminant level over extended areas inside and outside the subdivisions. Two modeling scenarios were used to simulate future transport as a result of removal of septic systems (source of nitrate-N contamination) and the termination of domestic pumping of groundwater. The models showed the largest decrease in nitrate-N concentrations when septic systems were removed and wells continued to pump. Nitrate-N concentrations probably will continue to increase in areas that are dependent on septic systems for waste disposal either under current land-use conditions in the valley or with continued growth and change in land use in the valley.

Publication Year 2013
Title The distribution and modeling of nitrate transport in the Carson Valley alluvial aquifer, Douglas County, Nevada
DOI 10.3133/sir20135136
Authors Ramon C. Naranjo, Toby L. Welborn, Michael R. Rosen
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2013-5136
Index ID sir20135136
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Nevada Water Science Center