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Recent (2008-10) concentrations and isotopic compositions of nitrate and concentrations of wastewater compounds in the Barton Springs zone, south-central Texas, and their potential relation to urban development in the contributing zone

May 17, 2011

During 2008–10, the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the City of Austin, the City of Dripping Springs, the Barton Springs/Edwards Aquifer Conservation District, the Lower Colorado River Authority, Hays County, and Travis County, collected and analyzed water samples from five streams (Barton, Williamson, Slaughter, Bear, and Onion Creeks), two groundwater wells (Marbridge well [YD–58–50–704] and Buda well [LR–58–58–403]), and the main orifice of Barton Springs in Austin, Texas, with the objective of characterizing concentrations and isotopic compositions of nitrate and concentrations of wastewater compounds in the Barton Springs zone. The Barton Springs zone is in south-central Texas, an area undergoing rapid growth in population and in land area affected by development, with associated increases in wastewater generation. Over a period of 17 months, during which the hydrologic conditions transitioned from dry to wet, samples were collected routinely from the streams, wells, and spring and, in response to storms, from the streams and spring; some or all samples were analyzed for nitrate, nitrogen and oxygen isotopes of nitrate, and waste­water compounds. The median nitrate concentrations in routine samples from all sites were higher in samples collected during the wet period than in samples collected during the dry period, with the greatest difference for stream samples (0.05 milligram per liter during the dry period to 0.96 milligram per liter for the wet period). Nitrate concentrations in recent (2008–10) samples were elevated relative to concentrations in historical (1990–2008) samples from streams and from Barton Springs under medium- and high-flow conditions. Recent nitrate concentrations were higher than historical concentrations at the Marbridge well but the reverse was true at the Buda well. The elevated concentrations likely are related to the cessation of dry conditions coupled with increased nitrogen loading in the contributing watersheds. An isotopic composition of nitrate (delta nitrogen–15) greater than 8 per mil in many of the samples indicated there was a contribution of nitrate with a biogenic (human and or animal waste, or both) origin. Wastewater compounds measured in routine samples were detected infrequently (3 percent of cases), and concentrations were very low (less than the method reporting level in most cases). There was no correlation between nitrate concentrations and the frequency of detection of wastewater compounds, indicating that wastewater compounds might be undergoing removal during such processes as infiltration through soil. Three potential sources of biogenic nitrate to the contributing zone were considered: septic systems, land application of treated wastewater, and domesticated dogs and cats. During 2001–10, the estimated densities of septic systems and domesticated dogs and cats (number per acre) increased in the watersheds of all five creeks, and the rate of land application of treated wastewater (gallons per day per acre) increased in the watersheds of Barton, Bear, and Onion Creeks. Considering the timing and location of the increases in the three sources, septic systems were considered a likely source of increased nitrate to Bear Creek; land application of treated wastewater a likely source to Barton, Bear, and Onion Creeks; and domestic dogs and cats a potential source principally to Williamson Creek. The results of this investigation indicate that baseline water quality, in terms of nitrate, has shifted upward between 2001 and 2010, even without any direct discharges of treated wastewater to the creeks.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2011
Title Recent (2008-10) concentrations and isotopic compositions of nitrate and concentrations of wastewater compounds in the Barton Springs zone, south-central Texas, and their potential relation to urban development in the contributing zone
DOI 10.3133/sir20115018
Authors Barbara Mahler, MaryLynn Musgrove, Chris Herrington, Thomas L. Sample
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2011-5018
Index ID sir20115018
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Texas Water Science Center

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