In China, the use of certain standards to evaluate surface water quality in areas with high background values due to natural factors rather than to human activities results in water quality underestimation and thus affects regional water quality management and decision-making. Herein, we examined river source water function zones of the Heilongjang province characterised by high background values and analysed the corresponding water quality data acquired in 2011–2016. The examined samples featured elevated chemical oxygen demand (COD), permanganate index (CODMn
), and ammonia nitrogen (NH3
-N) levels, which indicated that water quality was affected by the natural environment. The concentrations of background pollutants almost exceeded the limits stipulated by regional surface water quality standards and exhibited strong spatiotemporal variability. A three-step discrimination method including single index recognition, limiting factors, and a synthetic index was proposed to distinguish the background area among these zones for determining background values, and 10 complete background areas were identified. The background values of COD, CODMn
, and NH3
-N for the entire area were determined based on the data acquired during background area monitoring. Finally, considering the present procedure of water quality evaluation in China (single factor exponential method), a revised method based on background values was suggested. Thus, the evaluation results objectively and accurately reflect the regional water quality situation and therefore provide a scientific basis for the development of a better water quality assessment and management system in China.
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