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Water quality, sources of nitrate, and chemical loadings in the Geronimo Creek and Plum Creek watersheds, south-central Texas, April 2015–March 2016

December 22, 2017

Located in south-central Texas, the Geronimo Creek and Plum Creek watersheds have long been characterized by elevated nitrate concentrations. From April 2015 through March 2016, an assessment was done by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority and the Texas State Soil and Water Conservation Board, to characterize nitrate concentrations and to document possible sources of elevated nitrate in these two watersheds. Water-quality samples were collected from stream, spring, and groundwater sites distributed across the two watersheds, along with precipitation samples and wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) effluent samples from the Plum Creek watershed, to characterize endmember concentrations and isotopic compositions from April 2015 through March 2016. Stream, spring, and groundwater samples from both watersheds were collected during four synoptic sampling events to characterize spatial and temporal variations in water quality and chemical loadings. Water-quality and -quantity data from the WWTPs and stream discharge data also were considered. Samples were analyzed for major ions, selected trace elements, nutrients, and stable isotopes of water and nitrate.

The dominant land use in both watersheds is agriculture (cultivated crops, rangeland, and grassland and pasture). The upper part of the Plum Creek watershed is more highly urbanized and has five major WWTPs; numerous smaller permitted wastewater outfalls are concentrated in the upper and central parts of the Plum Creek watershed. The Geronimo Creek watershed, in contrast, has no WWTPs upstream from or near the sampling sites.

Results indicate that water quality in the Geronimo Creek watershed, which was evaluated only during base-flow conditions, is dominated by groundwater, which discharges to the stream by numerous springs at various locations. Nitrate isotope values for most Geronimo Creek samples were similar, which indicates that they likely have a common source (or sources) of nitrate. Nitrate sources in the Geronimo Creek watershed include a predominance of nitrate from fertilizer applications, as well as a contribution from septic systems. Additional nitrate loading from these sources is ongoing. Chemical loadings of dissolved solids, chloride, and sulfate varied little among sampling events and were low at most sites because of low streamflow.

In contrast to the Geronimo Creek watershed, nitrate sources in the Plum Creek watershed are dominated by effluent discharge from the major WWTPs in the upper and central parts of the watershed. Results indicate that discharge from these WWTPs accounts for the majority of base flow in the watershed. Nitrate concentrations in Plum Creek were dependent on flow conditions, with the highest concentrations measured at lower flows, when flow is dominated by WWTP effluent discharge. In addition to WWTP effluent discharge, the Plum Creek watershed, similar to the Geronimo Creek watershed, also is affected by historical and current loading of nitrate from fertilizer applications and from septic systems in the watershed. Chemical loadings of dissolved solids, chloride, sulfate, and nitrate in Plum Creek at lower flow conditions are highest at the upstream sites and decrease downstream as distance from the WWTPs increases, which is consistent with WWTP effluent as an important control on water quality. Under higher flow conditions, however, nitrate loads to Plum Creek increased by about a factor of three. These higher nitrate loads cannot be accounted for by WWTP effluent discharge from the five major WWTPs in the watershed. This additional loading indicates that nitrate is exported from the northeastern part of the watershed. In the lower part of the Plum Creek watershed, higher concentrations of dissolved solids, chloride, and sulfate occur, which might be affected by produced water associated with oil and gas exploration, or mixing with saline groundwater.

Publication Year 2017
Title Water quality, sources of nitrate, and chemical loadings in the Geronimo Creek and Plum Creek watersheds, south-central Texas, April 2015–March 2016
DOI 10.3133/sir20175121
Authors Rebecca B. Lambert, Stephen P. Opsahl, MaryLynn Musgrove
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2017-5121
Index ID sir20175121
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Texas Water Science Center