Nitrate in groundwater of the United States, 1991-2003

Environ Sci Technol. 2010 Jul 1;44(13):4988-97. doi: 10.1021/es100546y.


An assessment of nitrate concentrations in groundwater in the United States indicates that concentrations are highest in shallow, oxic groundwater beneath areas with high N inputs. During 1991-2003, 5101 wells were sampled in 51 study areas throughout the U.S. as part of the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) program. The well networks reflect the existing used resource represented by domestic wells in major aquifers (major aquifer studies), and recently recharged groundwater beneath dominant land-surface activities (land-use studies). Nitrate concentrations were highest in shallow groundwater beneath agricultural land use in areas with well-drained soils and oxic geochemical conditions. Nitrate concentrations were lowest in deep groundwater where groundwater is reduced, or where groundwater is older and hence concentrations reflect historically low N application rates. Classification and regression tree analysis was used to identify the relative importance of N inputs, biogeochemical processes, and physical aquifer properties in explaining nitrate concentrations in groundwater. Factors ranked by reduction in sum of squares indicate that dissolved iron concentrations explained most of the variation in groundwater nitrate concentration, followed by manganese, calcium, farm N fertilizer inputs, percent well-drained soils, and dissolved oxygen. Overall, nitrate concentrations in groundwater are most significantly affected by redox conditions, followed by nonpoint-source N inputs. Other water-quality indicators and physical variables had a secondary influence on nitrate concentrations.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Cities
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Fresh Water / analysis*
  • Geography
  • Humans
  • Models, Statistical
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Regression Analysis
  • Software
  • United States
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Water Purification
  • Water Supply


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical