Nitrate in aquifers beneath agricultural systems



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Research from several regions of the world provides spatially anecdotal evidence to hypothesize which hydrologic and agricultural factors contribute to groundwater vulnerability to nitrate contamination. Analysis of nationally consistent measurements from the U.S. Geological Survey's NAWOA program confirms these hypotheses for a substantial range of agricultural systems. Shallow unconfined aquifers are most susceptible to nitrate contamination associated with agricultural systems. Alluvial and other unconsolidated aquifers are the most vulnerable and shallow carbonate aquifers provide a substantial but smaller contamination risk. Where any of these aquifers are overlain by permeable soils the risk of contamination is larger. Irrigated systems can compound this vulnerability by increasing leaching facilitated by additional recharge and additional nutrient applications. The agricultural system of corn, soybeans, and hogs produced significantly larger concentrations of groundwater nitrate than all other agricultural systems, although mean nitrate concentrations in counties with dairy, poultry, cattle and grains, and horticulture systems were similar. If trends in the relation between increased fertilizer use and groundwater nitrate in the United States are repeated in other regions of the world, Asia may experience increasing problems because of recent increases in fertilizer use. Groundwater monitoring in Western and Eastern Europe as well as Russia over the next decade may provide data to determine if the trend in increased nitrate contamination can be reversed. If the concentrated livestock trend in the United States is global, it may be accompanied by increasing nitrogen contamination in groundwater. Concentrated livestock provide both point sources in the confinement area and intense non-point sources as fields close to facilities are used for manure disposal. Regions where irrigated cropland is expanding, such as in Asia, may experience the greatest impact of this practice.

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Conference Paper
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Conference Paper
Nitrate in aquifers beneath agricultural systems
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Water Science and Technology
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