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: II. Temporal variations and mixing processes

L. Ruiz, S. Abiven, C. Martin, P. Durand, V. Beaujouan, and J. Molénat

Abstract. In catchments with impervious bedrock, the nitrate concentrations in streamwater often show marked seasonal and small inter-annual variations. The inter-annual trends are usually attributed to changes in nitrogen inputs, due to changes in land use or in nitrogen deposition whereas seasonal patterns are explained in terms of availability of soil nitrate for leaching and of seasonality of nitrogen biotransformations. The companion paper showed that inter-annual variations of nitrogen in streamwater are not directly related to the variations of land use. The aim of this study is to describe nitrate concentration variations in a set of very small adjacent catchments, and to discuss the origin of the inter-annual and seasonal trends. Data from four catchments at the Kerbernez site (South Western Brittany, France) were used in this study. Nitrate concentrations in streamwater were monitored for eight years (1992 to 1999) at the outlet of the catchments. They exhibit contrasting inter-annual and seasonal patterns. An extensive survey of agricultural practices during this period allowed assessment of the amount of nitrogen available for leaching. The discharges measured since 1997 show similar specific fluxes but very different seasonal dynamics between the catchments. A simple, lumped linear store model is proposed as an initial explanation of the differences in discharge and nitrate concentration patterns between the catchments. The base flow at the outlet of each catchment is considered as a mixture of water from two linear reservoirs with different time constants. Each reservoir comprises two water stores, one mobile contributing to discharge, the other, immobile, where nitrate moves only by diffusion. The storm flow, which accounts for less than 10% of the annual flux, is not considered here. Six parameters were adjusted for each catchment to fit the observed data: the proportion of deep losses of water, the proportion of the two reservoirs and the size and initial concentration of the two immobile stores. The model simulates the discharge and nitrate concentration dynamics well. It suggests that the groundwater store plays a very important role in the control of nitrate concentration in streamwater, and that the pattern of the seasonal variation of nitrate concentration may result from the long term evolution of nitrogen losses by leaching.

Keywords: nitrate, diffuse pollution, groundwater, seasonal variations, agricultural catchment, simulation model