, Volume 69, Issue 8, pp 2609-2621
Date: 04 Nov 2012

Assessment of regional change in nitrate concentrations in groundwater in the Central Valley, California, USA, 1950s–2000s

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Abstract

A regional assessment of multi-decadal changes in nitrate concentrations was done using historical data and a spatially stratified non-biased approach. Data were stratified into physiographic subregions on the basis of geomorphology and soils data to represent zones of historical recharge and discharge patterns in the basin. Data were also stratified by depth to represent a shallow zone generally representing domestic drinking-water supplies and a deep zone generally representing public drinking-water supplies. These stratifications were designed to characterize the regional extent of groundwater with common redox and age characteristics, two factors expected to influence changes in nitrate concentrations over time. Overall, increasing trends in nitrate concentrations and the proportion of nitrate concentrations above 5 mg/L were observed in the east fans subregion of the Central Valley. Whereas the west fans subregion has elevated nitrate concentrations, temporal trends were not detected, likely due to the heterogeneous nature of the water quality in this area and geologic sources of nitrate, combined with sparse and uneven data coverage. Generally low nitrate concentrations in the basin subregion are consistent with reduced geochemical conditions resulting from low permeability soils and higher organic content, reflecting the distal portions of alluvial fans and historical groundwater discharge areas. Very small increases in the shallow aquifer in the basin subregion may reflect downgradient movement of high nitrate groundwater from adjacent areas or overlying intensive agricultural inputs. Because of the general lack of regionally extensive long-term monitoring networks, the results from this study highlight the importance of placing studies of trends in water quality into regional context. Earlier work concluded that nitrate concentrations were steadily increasing over time in the eastern San Joaquin Valley, but clearly those trends do not apply to other physiographic subregions within the Central Valley, even where land use and climate are similar.