An analysis of data collected at five flow-path study sites between 1997 and 2006 was performed to identify the factors needed to formulate a comprehensive program, with a focus on nitrogen, for protecting ground water and surface water in the North Carolina Coastal Plain. Water-quality protection in the Coastal Plain requires the identification of factors that affect the transport of nutrients from recharge areas to streams through the shallow ground-water system. Some basins process or retain nitrogen more readily than others, and the factors that affect nitrogen processing and retention were the focus of this investigation to improve nutrient management in Coastal Plain streams and to reduce nutrient loads to coastal waters.
Nitrate reduction in ground water was observed at all five flow-path study sites in the North Carolina Coastal Plain, although the extent of reduction at each site was influenced by various environmental, hydrogeologic, and geochemical factors. Denitrification was the most common factor responsible for decreases in nitrate along the ground-water flow paths. Specific factors, some of which affect denitrification rates, that appeared to influence ground-water nitrate concentrations along the flow paths or in the streams include soil drainage, presence or absence of riparian buffers, evapotranspiration, fertilizer use, ground-water recharge rates and residence times, aquifer properties, subsurface tile drainage, sources and amounts of organic matter, and hyporheic processes. The study data indicate that the nitrate-reducing capacity of the buffer zone combined with that of the hyporheic zone can substantially lower the amount of ground-water nitrate discharged to streams in agricultural settings of the North Carolina Coastal Plain.
At the watershed scale, the effects of ground-water discharge on surface-water quality appear to be greatly influenced by streamflow conditions and the presence of extensive riparian vegetation. Streamflow statistics that reflect base flow and the general hydrologic dynamics of a stream are important in understanding nutrient transport from a watershed and may be useful indicators of watersheds that are likely to have higher yields of nutrients and water. Combining streamflow statistics with information on such factors as land use, soil drainage, extent of riparian vegetation, geochemical conditions, and subsurface tile drainage in the Coastal Plain can be useful in identifying watersheds that are most likely to export excessive nitrogen due to nonpoint-source loadings and watersheds that are effective in processing nitrogen.