Nitrate and other nutrients discharged from the Mississippi River basin are suspected of causing a zone of depleted dissolved oxygen (hypoxic zone) in the Gulf of Mexico each summer. The hypoxic zone may have an adverse effect on aquatic life and commercial fisheries. Commercial fertilizers are the dominant source of nitrogen input to the Mississippi basin. Other nitrogen sources include animal waste, fixation of atmospheric nitrogen by legumes, precipitation, domestic and industrial effluent, and the soil. The inputs of nitrogen from most of these sources to the Mississippi basin can be estimated and the outputs in surface water can be measured. However, nitrogen from each source is affected differently by physical, chemical, and biological processes that control nitrogen cycling in terrestrial and aquatic systems. Hence, the relative contributions from the various sources of nitrogen to nitrate load in the Mississippi River are unknown because the different sources may not contribute proportionally to their inputs in the basin.
It may be possible to determine the relative contributions of the major sources of nitrate in river water using the stable isotopic ratios d15N and d18O of the nitrate ion. A few researchers have used the d15N and/or d18O isotope ratios to determine sources of nitrate in ground water, headwater catchments, and small rivers, but little is known about the isotopic composition of nitrate in larger rivers. The objective of this study is to measure the isotopic composition of nitrate and suspended organic matter in the Mississippi River and its major tributaries, in discharge to the Gulf of Mexico, and in streamflow from smaller watersheds that have distinct sources of nitrogen (row crops, animal wastes, and urban effluents) or are minimally impacted by man (undeveloped). Samples from seven sites on the Mississippi River and its tributaries and from 17 sites in smaller watersheds within the Mississippi River basin will be analyzed for d15N and d18O of dissolved nitrate. Suspended sediment collected from these sites will also be analyzed to determine the d15N, d13C, and d34S of the suspended organic material. Six samples will be collected at each site during the winter, spring, and summer of 1996-97. Results from these samples will be used to identify seasonal and flow-related variability in d15N and d18O ratios from each site and may also help determine the principal sources of the nitrate entering the Gulf of Mexico.