As questions regarding the influence of increasing urbanization on water quality in the Edwards aquifer are raised, a better understanding of the sources, fate, and transport of compounds of concern in the aquifer—in particular, nutrients and pesticides—is needed to improve water management decision-making capabilities. The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the San Antonio Water System, performed a study from 2010 to 2016 to better understand how water quality changes under a range of hydrologic conditions and in contrasting land-cover settings (rural and urban) in the Edwards aquifer. The study design included continuous hydrologic monitoring, continuous water-quality monitoring, and discrete sample collection for a detailed characterization of water quality at a network of sites throughout the aquifer system. The sites were selected to encompass a “source-to-sink” (that is, from aquifer recharge to aquifer discharge) approach. Network sites were selected to characterize rainfall, recharging surface water, and groundwater; groundwater sites included wells in the unconfined part of the aquifer (unconfined wells) and in the confined part of the aquifer (confined wells) and a major discharging spring. Storm-related samples—including rainfall samples, stormwater-runoff (surface-water) samples, and groundwater samples—were collected to characterize the aquifer response to recharge.
Elevated nitrate concentrations relative to national background values and the widespread detection of pesticides indicate that the Edwards aquifer is vulnerable to contamination and that vulnerability is affected by factors such as land cover, aquifer hydrogeology, and changes in hydrologic conditions. Greater vulnerability of groundwater in urban areas relative to rural areas was evident from results for urban groundwater sites, which generally had higher nitrate concentrations, elevated δ15N-nitrate values, a greater diversity of pesticides, and higher pesticide concentrations. The continuum of water quality from unconfined rural groundwater sites (least affected by anthropogenic contamination) to unconfined urban groundwater sites (most affected by anthropogenic contamination) demonstrates enhanced vulnerability of urban versus rural land cover. Differences in contaminant occurrences and concentration among unconfined urban wells indicate that the urban parts of the aquifer are not uniformly vulnerable, but rather are affected by spatial differences in the sources of nutrients and pesticides. In urban areas, the shallow, unconfined groundwater sites showed greater temporal variability in both nutrient and pesticide concentrations, as well as a greater degree of contamination, than did deeper, confined groundwater sites. In comparison to that of the shallow, unconfined groundwater sites, the water quality of the deeper, confined groundwater sites was relatively invariant during this multiyear study. Although aquifer hydrogeology is an important factor related to aquifer vulnerability, land cover likely has a greater influence on pesticide contamination of groundwater. Temporal variability in hydrologic conditions for the Edwards aquifer is apparent in data for surface water as a source of groundwater recharge, water-level altitude in wells, spring discharge, and groundwater quality. This temporal variability affects recharge sources, recharge amounts, groundwater traveltimes, flow routing, water-rock interaction processes, dilution, mixing, and, in turn, water quality. Relations of land cover, aquifer hydrogeology, and changing hydrologic conditions to water quality are complex but provide insight into the vulnerability of Edwards aquifer groundwater—a vital drinking-water resource.
|Title||Water-quality observations of the San Antonio segment of the Edwards aquifer, Texas, with an emphasis on processes influencing nutrient and pesticide geochemistry and factors affecting aquifer vulnerability, 2010–16|
|Authors||Stephen P. Opsahl, MaryLynn Musgrove, Barbara Mahler, Rebecca B. Lambert|
|Publication Subtype||USGS Numbered Series|
|Series Title||Scientific Investigations Report|
|Record Source||USGS Publications Warehouse|
|USGS Organization||Texas Water Science Center|