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Water Quality in a Wet Meadow, Platte River Valley, Central Nebraska

By P.J. Emmons
ABSTRACT: The Platte River Valley in Nebraska, and in particular the reach from Kearney to Grand Island, is an extremely important natural habitat area. Over 300 migratory bird species, including several threatened and endangered species, have been observed along the Platte River. In the spring, nearly 500,000 sandhill cranes, along with millions of ducks and geese, use this reach as a staging and feeding area during their northerly migration. Wet meadows (grasslands which have waterlogged soils much of the year) are a critical part of this migratory-bird habitat. However, the area of wet meadows between Kearney and Grand Island has declined nearly 50 percent due to the activities of man. The condition of the remaining wet meadows is of vital importance.

The U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program is designed to describe the status and trends in the quality of the Nation's surface water and groundwater resources and to provide a sound understanding of the natural and human factors that affect the quality of these resources. A study of the groundwater beneath a selected wet meadow was undertaken as part of the Central Nebraska Basins NAWQA study unit.

Observation wells were installed in the wet meadow at various distances along two transects downgradient from the edge of a corn field. One to five wells completed at depths of about 15 to 100 feet were located at each of the 5 sites. The wells were completed in the Platte River alluvium or the underlying Ogallala Formation. The depth to the water table ranges from 0 to 5 feet below land surface. The general direction of groundwater flow is parallel to flow in the Platte River. Selected wells were sampled in February, March, June, and December 1994 for major cations and anions, nutrients, and organonitrogen herbicides.

Pesticides and fertilizers are used extensively in Nebraska to enhance the production of row crops. Some of these pesticides and fertilizers have migrated into the groundwater. Atrazine was detected in water from all of the wells sampled in February and June and most of the wells sampled at other times, but only in concentrations of 0.1 to 0.6 micrograms per liter. Concentrations of the other pesticides analyzed, including alachlor, cyanazine, and metolachlor, were at or below the detection limit of 0.05 micrograms per liter. The highest concentrations of nitrate were found in water from the shallow wells (about 15 feet deep). The concentrations of nitrate as nitrogen in water from these wells ranged from 5 to 13 milligrams per liter in June.

Concentrations of major cations and anions decreased and their ratios varied with depth. The major cations were calcium and sodium, and the major anions were sulfate and bicarbonate. Water from the shallowest wells was a mixed calcium sodium sulfate type, whereas the deepest alluvial-aquifer water was a calcium sulfate type. The water from the Ogallala Formation was a calcium bicarbonate type. The variability of the groundwater quality reflects seasonal changes in recharge to and evaporation from the alluvial aquifer and rates of movement and mixing within and between the aquifers.

Emmons, P.J., 1996, Water quality in a wet meadow, Platte River Valley, Central Nebraska: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet FS-097-96, 4 p.

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