Nutrients, Suspended Sediment, and Pesticides in Waters of the Red River of the North Basin, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota, 1970-90

Available data on nutrients (phosphorus and nitrogen), suspended sediment, and pesticides in the Red River of the North Basin, a study unit under the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program, are reviewed. These data were collected by several agencies during 1970-90. Nutrient concentrations in surface water are higher downgradient from agricultural and urban areas than in other areas, but generally do not exceed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Maximum ContaminantLevels (MCLs). The 10 milligram per liter (mg/L) drinking water MCL for nitrate (as nitrogen) was rarely exceeded. Some of the largest nutrient inputs to the surface water system appear to come from the Fargo-Moorhead area. The highest nitrogen concentrations usually were found in the Red River of the North. Nitrogen composition was mostly organic nitrogen with some nitrate. Ammonia nitrogen was negligible except during mid-winter, when concentrations could exceed 1.0 mg/L. Streams draining the corn dominated cropland in the southern part of the basin had relatively high nitrogen concentrations compared to parts of the basin where small-grain crops, forests, and wetlands predominate. The Pembina River in the northern part of the basin had a large range in nitrogen concentrations that often exceeded those in the Red River of the North. The highest phosphorus concentrations generally were found in of the Red River of the North, although tributary streams occasionally had peak concentrations that exceeded those in the Red River of the North. Median nitrate concentrations in ground water were less than 1.0 mg/L as nitrogen in all counties in the basin except in OtterTail and Decker Counties in Minnesota. Half of the wells in Otter Tail County had nitrate-nitrogen concentrations exceeding 2.8 mg/L. Shallow, surficial aquifers tended to have the highest nitrate concentrations. Median suspended-sediment concentrations were less than 100 mg/L except in the Red River of the North near the Canadian border at Emerson, Manitoba and the Pembina River. The Pembina River occasionally had high suspended sediment concentrations; about 10 percent of the samples exceeded 2,000 mg/L. For both surface and ground water, available pesticide data were limited in spatial and temporal coverage. The majority of pesticide analyses for the Red River of the North Basin show no concentrations above laboratory reporting limits. Reported concentrations usually were below USEPA MCLs. Only a few analyses of pesticides in ground water had concentrations above laboratory reporting limits. Wells that had reportable levels are mainly in the southern and southeastern part of the basin, where atrazine was the most commonly detected pesticide. A relatively large fraction of stream samples had detectable quantities of 2,4-D, a- and y-HCH, and atrazine. These samples covered time spans of as much as 15 years and were from sites downstream from large drainage basins; however, concentrations were well below US EPA MCLs. One county-level study showed higher 2,4-D concentrations at upstream sites than at the outlet from a small basin. This indicates that downstream sites may fail to show impaired water-quality and the fate of pesticides used in the basin. Following the 1972 ban on DDT, concentrations of DDT in fish samples from the Red River of the North quickly decreased. Fish concentrations of DDE and DDD decreased more slowly. Low levels of DDE and DDD were detected in fish 14 years after the DDT ban.
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U.S. Geological Survey
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