Many estimates of nitrogen removal in streams and watersheds do not include or account for nitrate removal in deep sediments, particularly in gaining streams. We developed and tested a conceptual model for nitrate removal in deep sediments in a nitrogen-rich river network. The model predicts that oxic, nitrate-rich groundwater will become depleted in nitrate as groundwater upwelling through sediments encounters a zone that contains buried particulate organic carbon, which promotes redox conditions favorable for nitrate removal. We tested the model at eight sites in upwelling reaches of lotic ecosystems in the Waupaca River Watershed that varied by three orders of magnitude in groundwater nitrate concentration. We measured denitrification potential in sediment core sections to 30 cm and developed vertical nitrate profiles to a depth of about 1 m with peepers and piezometer nests. Denitrification potential was higher, on average, in shallower core sections. However, core sections deeper than 5 cm accounted for 70%, on average, of the depth-integrated denitrification potential. Denitrification potential increased linearly with groundwater nitrate concentration up to 2 mg NO3-N/L but the relationship broke down at higher concentrations (> 5 mg NO3-N/L), a pattern that suggests nitrate saturation. At most sites groundwater nitrate declined from high concentrations at depth to much lower concentrations prior to discharge into the surface water. The profiles suggested that nitrate removal occurred at sediment depths between 20 and 40 cm. Dissolved oxygen concentrations were much higher in deep sediments than in pore water at 5 cm sediment depth at most locations. The substantial denitrification potential in deep sediments coupled with the declines in nitrate and dissolved oxygen concentrations in upwelling groundwater suggest that our conceptual model for nitrate removal in deep sediments is applicable to this river network. Our results suggest that nitrate removal rates can be high in deep sediments of upwelling stream reaches, which may have implications for efforts to understand and quantify nitrogen transport and removal at larger scales.
Additional publication details
Nitrate removal in deep sediments of a nitrogen-rich river network: A test of a conceptual model