Simulation of nitrogen attenuation in a subterranean estuary, representative of the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Open-File Report 2015-1085
Prepared in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
By: , and 



A two-dimensional model was developed by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to assess flow and chemical reaction associated with groundwater discharge through the subterranean estuary representative of coastal salt ponds of southern Cape Cod. The model simulated both the freshwater and saltwater flow systems and accounted for density-dependent flow, tidal fluctuation, and chemical reactivity among oxygen, dissolved organic carbon, nitrate, and ammonia. Not previously incorporated into one model, the interaction of these effects can now be simulated in the subterranean estuary context.

An analysis of the flow system under mean-tide conditions was conducted first to provide the initial conditions for a subsequent analysis that included the effects of tidal fluctuations. Tidal fluctuations were simulated with a repeated couplet that represented a high tide-low tide sequence and alternating locations of head-dependent flux boundaries placed along the simulated seabed, above and below the levels of the respective high and low tides.

Boundary conditions for chemical species included nitrate in recharge, and oxygen and organic matter (including organic nitrogen) in infiltrating solutions of head-dependent boundaries. Reaction chemistry was limited to oxidative degradation of organic matter (including remineralization of ammonia) with oxygen or nitrate as electron acceptors and nitrification of ammonia in the presence of oxygen.

Simulations using the SEAWAT-2000 computer program resulted in two mixing zones-between freshwater and saltwater in a deep saltwater wedge and in an intertidal salt zone, which results from tidal fluctuation. The mixing zones are the principal locations where nitrogen attenuation reactions occurred-between organic matter in the saltwater zones of the aquifer and nitrate in the freshwater zone.

In mean-tide PHT3D model simulations, 15 percent of nitrogen that is recharged was attenuated because of reaction with dissolved organic matter, a denitrification reaction that reduces nitrate to nitrogen gas. When a fluctuating tide was simulated, the amount of recharged nitrogen that was denitrified increased to 20 percent.

Chemical reaction was controlled by the rate of mixing of freshwater and saltwater, which contained the reactants nitrate and dissolved organic matter, respectively, necessary for nitrogen attenuation reactions to take place. Reaction occurred in both the deep saltwater wedge and in an increased denitrification. However, mixing may also have been enhanced partly by numerical dispersion.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Simulation of nitrogen attenuation in a subterranean estuary, representative of the southern coast of Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2015-1085
DOI 10.3133/ofr20151085
Year Published 2015
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Massachusetts Water Science Center
Description vi, 30 p.
Country United States
State Massachusetts
Other Geospatial Cape Cod
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
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