Understanding local groundwater hydrology and geochemistry is critical for evaluating the effectiveness of wetlands at mitigating agricultural impacts on surface waters. The effectiveness of depressional wetlands at mitigating nitrate (NO3) transport from fertilized row crops, through groundwater, to local streams was examined in the watershed of the upper Choptank River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay on the Atlantic Coastal Plain. Hydrologic, geochemical, and water quality data were collected from January of 2008 through December of 2009 from surface waters and networks of piezometers installed in and around current or former depressional wetlands of three major types along a gradient of anthropogenic alteration: (1) natural wetlands with native vegetation (i.e., forested); (2) prior-converted croplands, which are former wetlands located in cultivated fields; and (3) hydrologically restored wetlands, including one wetland restoration and one shallow water management area. These data were collected to estimate the orientation of groundwater flow paths and likely interactions of groundwater containing NO3 from agricultural sources with reducing conditions associated with wetlands of different types. Natural wetlands were found to have longer periods of soil saturation and reducing conditions conducive to denitrification compared to the other wetland types studied. Because natural wetlands are typically located in groundwater recharge areas along watershed divides, nitrogen (N) from nearby agriculture was not intercepted. However, these wetlands likely improve water quality in adjacent streams via dilution. Soil and geochemical conditions conducive to denitrification were also present in restored wetlands and prior-converted croplands, and substantial losses of agricultural NO3 were observed in groundwater flowing through these wetland sediments. However, delivery of NO3 from agricultural areas through groundwater to these wetlands resulting in opportunities for denitrification were limited, particularly where reducing conditions did not extend throughout the entire thickness of the surficial aquifer allowing NO3 to pass conservatively beneath a wetland along deeper groundwater flow paths. The complexity of N fate and transport associated with depressional wetlands complicates the understanding of their importance to water quality in adjacent streams. Although depressional wetlands often contribute low NO3 water to local streams, their effectiveness as landscape sinks, for N from adjacent agriculture varies with natural conditions, such as the thickness of the aquifer and the extent of reducing conditions. Measurement of such natural geologic, hydrologic, and geochemical conditions are therefore fundamental to understanding N mitigation in individual wetlands.
Additional publication details
Nitrate fate and transport through current and former depressional wetlands in an agricultural landscape, Choptank Watershed, Maryland, United States