Groundwater nitrate transport and residence time in a vulnerable aquifer under dryland cereal production

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Montana State University - Bozeman, College of Agriculture


Selection of agricultural management practices to reduce nitrate leaching from soils can only be successful if both nitrate loading rates from soils to shallow aquifers and groundwater residence times are quantified. Elevated nitrate concentrations in shallow unconfined aquifers are commonly observed in agricultural areas as a result of increased N inputs. In the Judith River Watershed (JRW) in central Montana, USA, notably high nitrate concentrations in groundwater and stream water have exceeded the U.S. EPA drinking water standard of 10 mg L -1 for at least two decades. This large (24,400 ha) watershed drains immediately into the Missouri River, a tributary of the Mississippi River. Over an eleven month period in 2012, we measured groundwater and surface water nitrate concentrations across a hydrologically isolated strath terrace. We use the resulting data to constrain nitrate accumulation dynamics in the shallow aquifer. Nitrate is relatively conservative in this location, as it is high in groundwater (17.57 +/- 4.29 mg L -1; all groundwater samples pooled together), and remains high in streams and springs that drain the landform (15.67 +/- 9.45 mg L -1; all surface water and spring samples pooled together). We use a numerical model to simulate the character of nitrate accumulation in the aquifer as a whole, in order to evaluate how the entire period of cultivation has contributed to current nitrate concentrations, and begin to predict response times for effects of land use change. We consider the effect of groundwater residence time and travel time on nitrate loading using particle tracking in a three dimensional model aquifer. We find no correlation with nitrate concentrations in groundwater and emerging surface waters, and suggest approaches for improving both the geometry of the model and the selection of sites in future work. Overall, our results imply that groundwater residence times are several decades at most, suggesting that similar timeframes will be needed to reduce overall nitrate concentrations in groundwater and emergent streams to below drinking water standards. Preliminary evaluation of several management scenarios suggests that both increased fertilizer use efficiency and rotational strategies may be needed to prevent the loss of soil N to groundwater.




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