Articles | Volume 6, issue 3
30 Jun 2002
30 Jun 2002

Effect on nitrate concentration in stream water of agricultural practices in small catchments in Brittany: I. Annual nitrogen budgets

L. Ruiz, S. Abiven, P. Durand, C. Martin, F. Vertès, and V. Beaujouan

Abstract. The hydrological and biogeochemical monitoring of catchments has become a common approach for studying the effect of the evolution of agricultural practices on water resources. In numerous studies, the catchment is used as a "mega-lysimeter" to calculate annual input-output budgets. However, the literature reflects two opposite interpretations of the trends of nitrate concentration in streamwater. For some authors, essentially in applied studies, the mean residence time of leached nitrate in shallow groundwater systems is much less than one year and river loads reflect annual land use while for others, nitrate is essentially transport limited, independent of soil nitrate supply in the short term and annual variations reflect changes in climatic conditions. This study tests the effect of agricultural land-use changes on inter-annual nitrate trends on stream water of six small adjacent catchments from 0.10 to 0.57 km2 in area, on granite bedrock, at Kerbernez, in Western Brittany (France). Nitrate concentrations and loads in streamwater have been monitored for nine years (1992 to 2000) at the outlet of the catchments. An extensive survey of agricultural practices from 1993 to 1999 allowed assessment of the nitrogen available for leaching through nitrogen budgets. For such small catchments, year-to-year variations of nitrate leaching can be very important, even when considering the 'memory effect' of soil, while nitrate concentrations in streamwater appear relatively steady. No correlation was found between the calculated mean nitrate concentration of drainage water and the mean annual concentration in streams, which can even exhibit opposite trends in inter-annual variations. The climatic conditions do not affect the mean concentration in streamwater significantly. These results suggest that groundwater plays an important role in the control of streamwater nitrate concentration.

Keywords: nitrate, diffuse pollution, agricultural catchment, nitrogen budget, leaching, Kerbernez catchments