Articles | Volume 19, issue 12
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 4859–4876, 2015
Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 19, 4859–4876, 2015

Research article 18 Dec 2015

Research article | 18 Dec 2015

Spatially distributed influence of agro-environmental factors governing nitrate fate and transport in an irrigated stream–aquifer system

R. T. Bailey1, M. Ahmadi2, T. K. Gates1, and M. Arabi1 R. T. Bailey et al.
  • 1Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Colorado State University, 1372 Campus Delivery, Fort Collins, CO 80523-1372, USA
  • 2Department of Civil Engineering, Sharif University of Technology, Azadi St., Tehran 11365-11155, Iran

Abstract. Elevated levels of nitrate (NO3) in groundwater systems pose a serious risk to human populations and natural ecosystems. As part of an effort to remediate NO3 contamination in irrigated stream–aquifer systems, this study elucidates agricultural and environmental parameters and processes that govern NO3 fate and transport at the regional (500 km2), local (50 km2), and field scales (< 1 km2). Specifically, the revised Morris sensitivity analysis method was applied to a finite-difference nitrogen cycling and reactive transport model of a regional-scale study site in the lower Arkansas River valley in southeastern Colorado. The method was used to rank the influence of anthropogenic activities and natural chemical processes on NO3 groundwater concentration, NO3 mass leaching, and NO3 mass loading to the Arkansas River from the aquifer. Sensitivity indices were computed for the entire study area in aggregate as well as each canal command area, crop type, and individual grid cells. Results suggest that fertilizer loading, crop uptake, and heterotrophic denitrification govern NO3 fate and transport for the majority of the study area, although their order of influence on NO3 groundwater concentration and mass leaching varies according to crop type and command area. Canal NO3 concentration and rates of autotrophic denitrification, nitrification, and humus decomposition also dominate or partially dominate in other locations. Each factor, with the exception of O2 reduction rate, is the dominating influence on NO3 groundwater concentration at one or more locations within the study area. Results can be used to determine critical processes and key management actions for future data collection and remediation strategies, with efforts able to be focused on localized areas.

Short summary
Nitrate contamination in agricultural groundwater systems is a concern in many regions worldwide. In this study, a model is applied to a regional-scale irrigated stream--aquifer system to identify the system inputs and processes that govern nitrate fate and transport at multiple scales: for the entire study region, for spatial areas irrigated by individual canals, and for individual cultivated fields. Results can be used to guide the localized application of best-management practices.