Water-Resources Investigations Report 99-4201 Abstract

Environmental Setting and Effects on Water Quality inthe Great and Little Miami River Basins, Ohio and Indiana

By Linda M. Debrewer, Gary L. Rowe, David C. Reutter, Rhett C. Moore, Julie A. Hambrook, and Nancy T. Baker


The Great and Little Miami River Basins drain approximately 7,354 square miles in southwestern Ohio and southeastern Indiana and are included in the more than 50 major river basins and aquifer systems selected for water-quality assessment as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Principal streams include the Great and Little Miami Rivers in Ohio and the Whitewater River in Indiana. The Great and Little Miami River Basins are almost entirely within the Till Plains section of the Central Lowland physiographic province and have a humid continental climate, characterized by well-defined summer and winter seasons. With the exception of a few areas near the Ohio River, Pleistocene glacial deposits, which are predominantly till, overlie lower Paleozoic limestone, dolomite, and shale bedrock. The principal aquifer is a complex buried-valley system of sand and gravel aquifers capable of supporting sustained well yields exceeding 1,000 gallons per min-ute. Designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a sole-source aquifer, the Buried-Valley Aquifer System is the principal source of drinking water for 1.6 million people in the basins and is the dominant source of water for southwestern Ohio. Water use in the Great and Little Miami River Basins averaged 745 million gallons per day in 1995. Of this amount, 48 percent was supplied by surface water (including the Ohio River) and 52 percent was supplied by ground water.

Land-use and waste-management practices influence the quality of water found in streams and aquifers in the Great and Little Miami River Basins. Land use is approximately 79 percent agriculture, 13 percent urban (residential, industrial, and commercial), and 7 percent forest. An estimated 2.8 million people live in the Great and Little Miami River Basins; major urban areas include Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio. Fertilizers and pesticides associated with agricultural activity, discharges from municipal and industrial wastewater- treatment and thermoelectric plants, urban runoff, and disposal of solid and hazardous wastes contribute contaminants to surface water and ground water throughout the study area.

Surface water and ground water in the Great and Little Miami River Basins are classified as very hard, calcium-magnesium- bicarbonate waters. The major-ion composition and hardness of surface water and ground water reflect extensive contact with the carbonate-rich soils, glacial sediments, and limestone or dolomite bedrock. Dieldrin, endrin, endosulfan II, and lindane are the most commonly reported organochlorine pesticides in streams draining the Great and Little Miami River Basins. Peak concentrations of the her-bicides atrazine and metolachlor in streams commonly are associated with post-application runoff events. Nitrate concentrations in surface water average 3 to 4 mg/L (milligrams per liter) in the larger streams and also show strong seasonal variations related to application periods and runoff events.

Ambient iron concentrations in ground water pumped from aquifers in the Great and Little Miami River Basins often exceed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Secondary Maximum Contaminant Level (300 micrograms per liter). Chloride concentrations are below aesthetic drinking-water guidelines (250 mg/L), except in ground water pumped from low-yielding Ordovician shale; chloride concentrations in sodium-chloride- rich ground water pumped from the shale bedrock can exceed 1,000 mg/L. Some of the highest average nitrate concentrations in ground water in Ohio and Indiana are found in wells completed in the buried-valley aquifer; these concentrations typically are found in those parts of the sand and gravel aquifer that are not overlain by clay-rich till. Atrazine was the most commonly detected herbicide in private wells. Concentrations of volatile organic compounds in ground water generally were below Federal drinking-water standards, except near areas of known or suspected contamination.

Evaluation of fish and macroinvertebrate community performance in streams and rivers draining the Great and Little Miami River Basins indicates that most streams meet basic aquatic-life-use criteria set by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency for warmwater habitat. Stream reaches whose biological community performance meet aquatic-life-use criteria defined for exceptional warmwater habitat are found in Twin Creek, the Upper Great Miami River, the Little Miami River, and the Whitewater River Basins. Other streams have exhibited significant improvements in biological community performance (and water quality) that are attributed primarily to reduced pollutant loadings from wastewater-treatment plants upgraded since 1972.

Four hydrogeomorphic regions were delineated in the Great and Little Miami River Basins based on distinct and relatively homogeneous natural characteristics. Primary features used to delineate the hydrogeomorphic regions include bedrock geology, surficial geology, physiography, hydrology, soil types, and vegetation. These four regions—Till Plains, Drift Plains/Unglaciated, Interlobate, and Fluvial—are used in the Great and Little Miami River Basins study to assess the influence of natural features of the environmental setting on surface- and ground-water quality.

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