The impact of agricultural chemicals on groundwater quality depends on the interactions of biogeochemical and hydrologic factors. To identify key processes affecting distribution of agricultural nitrate in groundwater, a parsimonious transport model was applied at 14 sites across the U.S. Simulated vertical profiles of NO3-, N2 from denitrification, O2, Cl-, and environmental tracers of groundwater age were matched to observations by adjusting the parameters for recharge rate, unsaturated zone travel time, fractions of N and Cl- inputs leached to groundwater, O2 reduction rate, O2 threshold for denitrification, and denitrification rate. Model results revealed important interactions among biogeochemical and physical factors. Chloride fluxes decreased between the land surface and water table possibly because of Cl- exports in harvested crops (averaging 22% of land-surface Cl- inputs). Modeled zero-order rates of O2 reduction and denitrification were correlated. Denitrification rates at depth commonly exceeded overlying O2 reduction rates, likely because shallow geologic sources of reactive electron donors had been depleted. Projections indicated continued downward migration of NO3- fronts at sites with denitrification rates <0.25 mg-N L-1 yr-1. The steady state depth of NO3- depended to a similar degree on application rate, leaching fraction, recharge, and NO3- and O2 reaction rates. Steady state total mass in each aquifer depended primarily on the N application rate. In addition to managing application rates at land surface, efficient water use may reduce the depth and mass of N in groundwater because lower recharge was associated with lower N fraction leached. Management actions to reduce N leaching could be targeted over aquifers with high-recharge and low-denitrification rates.
Additional publication details
Factors controlling nitrate fluxes in groundwater in agricultural areas