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Natural and Human Influences on Water Quality in a Shallow Regional Unconsolidated Aquifer, Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain

By Scott W. Ator

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Data collected from more than 400 wells in the surficial unconfined aquifer in the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain (New York through North Carolina) were compiled and analyzed to improve understanding of multiple natural and human influences on water quality in such shallow regional aquifers. Geochemical patterns were identified and described through principal components analysis on major ions, and correlation and logistic regression were used to relate observed concentrations of nitrate and selected pesticide compounds (atrazine, metolachlor, simazine, and deethylatrazine, an atrazine degradate) and volatile organic compounds (chloroform, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, tetrachlorethene, and methyl tert-butyl ether) to likely influences, such as observed geochemical patterns, land use, hydrogeology, and soils. Variability in major-ion concentrations is primarily related to ionic strength and redox condition. Concentrations of nitrate, pesticides, and volatile organic compounds are related to natural conditions, as well as the distribution of likely sources reflected in land use. Nitrate is most common in aerobic Groundwater and in relatively well-drained areas, for example; concentrations greater than 0.4 milligrams per liter may result from a variety of human activities, although concentrations greater than 3 milligrams per liter are more likely in agricultural areas. Atrazine, deethylatrazine, and metolachlor also are related to geochemical patterns, likely because Groundwater geochemistry reflects hydrogeologic and soil conditions affecting pesticide transport to the water table. Results demonstrate the value of geochemical information along with the distribution of sources and other influences to understanding the regional occurrence of selected compounds in Groundwater. Such influences are not unique to the Northern Atlantic Coastal Plain, and thus observations and interpretations are relevant to broader areas.

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