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Use of real-time sensors to temporally characterize water quality in groundwater and surface water in Mason County, Illinois, 2017–19

November 25, 2020

The persistence of high nitrate concentrations in shallow groundwater has been well documented in the shallow glacial aquifer of Mason County, Illinois. Nitrates in groundwater can be a concern when concentrations exceed 10 milligrams per liter in drinking water. Additionally, nitrate in groundwater can contribute to surface water nitrogen loads that can cause increased algal growth. Algal growth increases oxygen consumption causing anoxic conditions as observed in the Gulf of Mexico Hypoxic Zone.

From March 8, 2017, to March 31, 2019, groundwater level, continuous nitrate, dissolved oxygen, specific conductance, water temperature, and pH data were collected in a monitoring well to temporally assess changes in water quality using high frequency data. During this same period, instantaneous field measurements of water quality and groundwater levels were made in surface water and groundwater in and near Quiver Creek in the presumed groundwater flow path about 0.6 mile from the continuous monitoring well. Groundwater nitrate concentrations continuously measured in the aquifer during this time ranged from 14.7 to 23.2 milligrams per liter, whereas instantaneously measured nitrate concentrations in Quiver Creek ranged from 0.9 to 6.4 milligrams per liter. Nitrate concentrations measured by piezometer varied laterally and vertically in the Quiver Creek floodplain and beneath the stream. Irrigation and fertigation for agriculture is widely practiced in Mason County. This may seasonally affect the groundwater flow and movement as well as the persistence of nitrate in this area. Continuously and instantaneously measured nitrate concentrations and groundwater levels indicate that during the irrigation season, discharge to Quiver Creek from the shallow groundwater system may be limited. During and following periods when estimated irrigation use is highest, the low-nitrate deeper groundwater may be the dominant contributor to the Quiver Creek surface water, whereas during recharge events and when the system is not under the stress of irrigation, there is more contribution from the local and higher-nitrate shallow groundwater.