Nitrogen transport and transformations were followed over the initial 3 years of development of a plume of wastewater-contaminated groundwater in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Ammonification and nitrification in the unsaturated zone and ammonium sorption in the saturated zone were predominant, while loss of fixed nitrogen through denitrification was minor. The major effect of transport was the oxidation of discharged organic and inorganic forms to nitrate, which was the dominant nitrogen form in transit to receiving systems. Ammonification and nitrification in the unsaturated zone transformed 16-19% and 50-70%, respectively, of the total nitrogen mass discharged to the land surface during the study but did not attenuate the nitrogen loading. Nitrification in the unsaturated zone also contributed to a pH decrease of 2 standard units and to an N2O increase (46-660 ??g N/L in the plume). Other processes in the unsaturated zone had little net effect: Ammonium sorption removed <1% of the total discharged nitrogen mass; filtering of particulate organic nitrogen was less than 3%; ammonium and nitrate assimilation was less than 6%; and ammonia volatilization was less than 0.25%. In the saturated zone a central zone of anoxic groundwater (DO ??? 0.05 mg/L) was first detected 17 months after effluent discharge to the aquifer began, which expanded at about the groundwater-flow velocity. Although nitrate was dominant at the water table, the low, carbon-limited rates of denitrification in the anoxic zone (3.0-9.6 (ng N/cm3)/d) reduced only about 2% of the recharged nitrogen mass to N2. In contrast, ammonium sorption in the saturated zone removed about 16% of the recharged nitrogen mass from the groundwater. Ammonium sorption was primarily limited to anoxic zone, where nitrification was prevented, and was best described by a Langmuir isotherm in which effluent ionic concentrations were simulated. The initial nitrogen load discharged from the groundwater system may depend largely on the growth and stability of the sorbed ammonium pool, which in turn depends on effluent-loading practices, subsurface microbial processes, and saturation of available exchange sites.
Additional publication details
Nitrogen transport and transformations in a shallow aquifer receiving wastewater discharge: A mass balance approach