Articles | Volume 15, issue 10
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 15, 3153–3170, 2011
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 15, 3153–3170, 2011

Research article 18 Oct 2011

Research article | 18 Oct 2011

Subsurface lateral flow from hillslope and its contribution to nitrate loading in streams through an agricultural catchment during subtropical rainstorm events

B. Zhang1,2, J. L. Tang2,3, Ch. Gao4, and H. Zepp5 B. Zhang et al.
  • 1Key Laboratory of Crop Nutrition and Nutrient Cycling of Ministry of Agriculture of China, Institute of Agricultural Resources and Regional Planning, Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), Beijing, 100081, China
  • 2Key State Laboratory of Soil and Sustainable Agriculture, Institute of Soil Science, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Nanjing, 210008, China
  • 3Institute of Mountain Hazards and Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), Chengdu, 610041, China
  • 4Geographical Institute of Nanjing University, Nanjing, 210093, China
  • 5Geographical Institute of Ruhr University, 44780 Bochum, Germany

Abstract. Subsurface lateral flow from agricultural hillslopes is often overlooked compared with overland flow and tile drain flow, partly due to the difficulties in monitoring and quantifying. The objectives of this study were to examine how subsurface lateral flow generated through soil pedons from cropped hillslopes and to quantify its contribution to nitrate loading in the streams through an agricultural catchment in the subtropical region of China. Profiles of soil water potential along hillslopes and stream hydro-chemographs in a trenched stream below a cropped hillslope and at the catchment outlet were simultaneously recorded during two rainstorm events. The dynamics of soil water potential showed positive matrix soil water potential over impermeable soil layer at 0.6 to 1.50 m depths during and after the storms, indicating soil water saturation and drainage processes along the hillslopes irrespective of land uses. The hydro-chemographs in the streams, one trenched below a cropped hillslope and one at the catchment outlet, showed that the concentrations of particulate nitrogen and phosphorus corresponded well to stream flow during the storm, while the nitrate concentration increased on the recession limbs of the hydrographs after the end of the storm. All the synchronous data revealed that nitrate was delivered from the cropped hillslope through subsurface lateral flow to the streams during and after the end of the rainstorms. A chemical mixing model based on electricity conductivity (EC) and H+ concentration was successfully established, particularly for the trenched stream. The results showed that the subsurface lateral flow accounted for 29% to 45% of total stream flow in the trenched stream, responsible for 86% of total NO3-N loss (or 26% of total N loss), and for 5.7% to 7.3% of total stream flow at the catchment outlet, responsible for about 69% of total NO3-N loss (or 28% of total N loss). The results suggest that subsurface lateral flow through hydraulically stratified soil pedons have to be paid more attention for controlling non-point source surface water pollution from intensive agricultural catchment particularly in the subtropical areas with great soil infiltration.