Chloride sources and losses in two tile-drained agricultural watersheds

Mark B. David, Corey A. Mitchell, Lowell E. Gentry, Ronald K. Salemme

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Chloride is a relatively unreactive plant nutrient that has long been used as a biogeochemical tracer but also can be a pollutant causing aquatic biology impacts when concentrations are high, typically from rock salt applications used for deicing roads. Chloride inputs to watersheds are most often from atmospheric deposition, road salt, or agricultural fertilizer, although studies on agricultural watersheds with large fertilizer inputs are few. We used long-term (21 and 17 yr) chloride water quality data in two rivers of east-central Illinois to better understand chloride biogeochemistry in two agricultural watersheds (Embarras and Kaskaskia), the former with a larger urban land use and both with extensive tile drainage. During our sampling period, the average chloride concentration was 23.7 and 20.9 mg L-1 in the Embarras and Kaskaskia Rivers, respectively. Annual fluxes of chloride were 72.5 and 61.2 kg ha-1 yr-1 in the Embarras and Kaskaskia watersheds, respectively. In both watersheds, fertilizer chloride was the dominant input (~49 kg ha-1 yr-1), with road salt likely the other major source (23.2 and 7.2 kg ha-1 yr-1 for the Embarras and Kaskaskia watersheds, respectively). Combining our monitoring data with earlier published data on the Embarras River showed an increase in chloride concentrations as potash use increased in Illinois during the 1960s and 1970s with a lag of about 2 to 6 yr to changes in potash inputs based on a multiple-regression model. In these agricultural watersheds, riverine chloride responds relatively quickly to potash fertilization as a result of tile-drainage.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)341-348
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2016

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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