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Water study yields a few surprises for New England

New England's legacy of urban and industrial activities, together with recent development in forested areas, has affected the quality of rivers and ground water in cities and rural areas. The impact is reflected more quickly than expected as development begins to take hold. These are a few of the findings the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) announced today that are part of the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program study of the 23,000 square mile New England Coastal Basins during 1999-2001. The area includes western Maine, Eastern New Hampshire and Massachusetts, and most of Rhode Island (see insert map).

Elevated levels of arsenic, mercury, zinc, lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) were apparent in river sediments in highly urbanized areas, such as Boston, Mass. and Providence RI. All of these contaminants were detected at concentrations exceeding guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. Levels of organic compounds, such as the gasoline additive MTBE and solvents used in industrial cleaners, were below drinking water standards and guidelines, but were still frequently found in ground waters used for drinking.

Major Findings on River Quality and Ecosystems

"We were surprised to find that the quality of streams begin to degrade earlier than we thought as watersheds develop. Because of this finding, stream protection measures need to be in place even in the more rural areas of New England where development is beginning to occur," said Keith Robinson, USGS Hydrologist and principal investigator of the study. Study results indicated that:

  • Streams draining rural watersheds with as little as 3-5 percent urban lands showed signs of degradation such as the reduction in populations of pollutant-sensitive insects and fish. Some of the watersheds studied with only 20 percent urban lands had severe degradation of aquatic life.
  • Although the highest mercury l
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  • Contact: Debra Foster
    dhfoster@usgs.gov
    603-226-7837
    United States Geological Survey
    8-Jul-2004


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