Concentrations of dissolved nitrite plus nitrate increased fairly steadily in samples from four shallow groundwater monitoring wells after biosolids applications to nonirrigated farmland began in 1993. The U.S. Geological Survey began a preliminary assessment of sources of nitrogen in shallow groundwater at part of the biosolids-application area near Deer Trail, Colorado, in 2005 in cooperation with the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District. Possible nitrogen sources in the area include biosolids, animal manure, inorganic fertilizer, atmospheric deposition, and geologic materials (bedrock and soil). Biosolids from the Metro Wastewater Reclamation District plant in Denver and biosolids, cow manure, geologic materials (bedrock and soil), and groundwater from the study area were sampled to measure nitrogen content and nitrogen isotopic compositions of nitrate or total nitrogen. Biosolids also were leached, and the leachates were analyzed for nitrogen content and other concentrations. Geologic materials from the study area also were sampled to determine mineralogy. Estimates of nitrogen contributed from inorganic fertilizer and atmospheric deposition were calculated from other published reports.
The nitrogen information from the study indicates that each of the sources contain sufficient nitrogen to potentially affect groundwater nitrate concentrations. Natural processes can transform the nitrogen in any of the sources to nitrate in the groundwater. Load calculations indicate that animal manure, inorganic fertilizer, or atmospheric deposition could have contributed the largest nitrogen load to the study area in the 13 years before biosolids applications began, but biosolids likely contributed the largest nitrogen load to the study area in the 13 years after biosolids applications began.
Various approaches provided insights into sources of nitrate in the groundwater samples from 2005. The isotopic data indicate that, of the source materials considered, biosolids and (or) animal manure were the most likely sources of nitrate in the wells at the time of sampling (2005), and that inorganic fertilizer, atmospheric deposition, and geologic materials were not substantial sources of nitrate in the wells in 2005. The large total nitrogen content of the biosolids and animal-manure samples and biosolids leachates also indicates that the biosolids and animal manure had potential to leach nitrogen and produce large dissolved nitrate concentrations in groundwater. The available data, however, could not be used to distinguish between biosolids or manure as the dominant source of nitrate in the groundwater because the nitrogen isotopic composition of the two materials is similar. Major-ion data also could not be used to distinguish between biosolids or manure as the dominant source of nitrate in the groundwater because the major-ion composition (as well as the isotopic composition) of the two materials is similar. Without additional data, chloride/bromide mass ratios do not necessarily support or refute the hypothesis that biosolids and (or) animal manure were the primary sources of nitrate in water from the study-area wells in 2005. Concentrations of water-extractable nitrate in the soil indicate that biosolids could be an important source of nitrate in the groundwater recharge. Nitrogen inventories in the soil beneath biosolids-application areas and the nitrogen-input estimates for the study area both support the comparisons of isotopic composition, which indicate that some type of human waste (such as biosolids) and (or) animal manure was the source of nitrate in groundwater sampled from the wells in 2005. The nitrogen-load estimates considered with the nitrogen isotopic data and the soil-nitrogen inventories indicate that biosolids applications likely are a major source of nitrogen to the shallow groundwater at these monitoring wells.