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Hydrologic and geochemical controls on pesticide and nutrient transport to two streams on the Delmarva Peninsula

January 11, 2005

Pesticides and nutrients move from application areas through ground water and surface runoff to streams on the Delmarva Peninsula. The relative importance of different transport media to the movement of these compounds in different watersheds is related to locally variable hydrologic and geochemical conditions among areas of regionally similar land use, geology, and soils. Consideration of such local variability is important to land-management efforts or future environmental investigations on the Peninsula.

Chemical analyses of samples collected over a multiyear period from two streams on the Delmarva Peninsula were analyzed along with similar available analyses of ground water to document the occurrence of pesticides and nutrients, and illustrate important processes controlling their movement through watersheds to streams. The upper Pocomoke River and Chesterville Branch drain predominantly agricultural watersheds typical of the Delmarva Peninsula. Chesterville Branch drains a watershed of moderate relief, good drainage, and a permeable surficial aquifer that ranges in thickness from about 15 to 25 meters. The upper Pocomoke River Watershed, however, is extremely flat with poorly drained soils and abundant artificial drainage. Influences on the chemistry of water in each stream were determined from seasonal patterns in the concentrations of selected constituents from 1996 through 2001, and relations with streamflow.

Nutrients and pesticides are detectable throughout the year in the upper Pocomoke River and Chesterville Branch. Water in both streams is typically dilute, slightly acidic, and well oxygenated, and nitrate and phosphorus concentrations generally exceed estimated natural levels. Pesticide concentrations are generally low, although concentrations of selected metabolites commonly exceed 1 microgram per liter, particularly in Chesterville Branch. Nitrate and metabolites of pesticide compounds are apparently transported to Chesterville Branch preferentially through ground water in the surficial aquifer, although selected pesticide parent compounds and less soluble nutrients move primarily in surface runoff. Conversely, the relative proportion of discharge from surficial and partially confined aquifers is the most important factor controlling the chemistry of water in the upper Pocomoke River. Surface runoff in the larger and predominantly flat upper Pocomoke River Watershed is apparently limited to particularly significant precipitation events. Transport of pesticides in surface runoff becomes important in both watersheds during such events. Instantaneous loads of pesticides in streams typically stabilize or continue to increase with increasing flow even after runoff begins, although in-stream concentrations may decrease due to dilution.

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