Environmental Earth Sciences

, Volume 69, Issue 8, pp 2609–2621 | Cite as

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

  • Karen R. Burow
  • Bryant C. Jurgens
  • Kenneth Belitz
  • Neil M. Dubrovsky
Original Article


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.


Nitrate Groundwater Regional land use management Water quality trends Central Valley 



This work was supported by the USGS National Water-Quality Assessment Program (NAWQA) and the California Ambient Groundwater Monitoring Program (GAMA), which is a joint effort of the USGS and the California State Water Resources Control Board. We gratefully acknowledge David W. Anning and the anonymous reviewers for their insightful and constructive comments in the preparation of the manuscript.

Supplementary material

12665_2012_2082_MOESM1_ESM.docx (1.5 mb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 1584 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag (outside the USA) 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Karen R. Burow
    • 1
  • Bryant C. Jurgens
    • 1
  • Kenneth Belitz
    • 2
  • Neil M. Dubrovsky
    • 1
  1. 1.US Geological SurveySacramentoUSA
  2. 2.US Geological SurveySan DiegoUSA

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