Seasonality of nitrate sources and isotopic composition in the Upper Illinois River

Journal of Hydrology
By: , and 



To improve understanding of spatial, seasonal, and inter-annual variations in nitrate sources and in-stream processes in the Illinois River system, nitrate concentrations and isotopic compositions were measured in 445 water samples collected over a four-year period (2004–2008) from the Upper Illinois River Basin (UIRB). Samples included surface water in the river and major tributaries, effluent samples from Chicago’s largest wastewater treatment plant (WTP), and representative groundwater from shallow wells in agricultural land. Two principal nitrate endmember sources within the UIRB had distinctive isotopic compositions: WTP effluent with δ15N = 8.6 ± 1.7‰ and δ18O = 0.8 ± 1.4‰ and agricultural groundwater with δ15N-NO3 = 3.4 ± 0.6‰ and δ18O = 3.7 ± 0.5‰ (when minimally affected by nitrate reduction). Isotopic data indicated that the large pulse of nitrate exported from the river basin during the spring was mostly derived from agricultural land drainage, while nitrate from large WTP effluent point sources was predominant in the upper reaches of the river near Chicago. During low base-flow conditions in late-summer and fall, the agricultural nitrate source was greatly diminished and the headwater WTP source was predominant in the river basin export. Our results indicated biogeochemical nitrate reduction and isotopic fractionation occurred within the river network, affecting both agricultural and urban sources during surface-water transport. In addition, diminished agricultural nitrate export was attributable to preferential discharge of biogeochemically reduced groundwater during low base flow. Isotopic indicators of spatial and seasonal variations in the relative importance of different nitrate sources, and their relative susceptibility to natural attenuation, might be useful for guiding monitoring and management practices to reduce nitrate export from complex watersheds with mixed land uses.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Seasonality of nitrate sources and isotopic composition in the Upper Illinois River
Series title Journal of Hydrology
DOI 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2018.11.043
Volume 568
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) WMA - Earth System Processes Division
Description 13 p.
First page 849
Last page 861
Country United States
Other Geospatial Upper Illinois River