Denitrification in the shallow ground water of a tile-drained, agricultural watershed

Edward Mehnert, Hue Hwa Hwang, Thomas M. Johnson, Robert A. Sanford, Will C. Beaumont, Thomas R. Holm

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Nonpoint-source pollution of surface water by N is considered a major cause of hypoxia. Because Corn Belt watersheds have been identified as major sources of N in the Mississippi River basin, the fate and transport of N from midwestern agricultural watersheds have received considerable interest. The fate and transport of N in the shallow ground water of these watersheds still needs additional research. Our purpose was to estimate denitrification in the shallow ground water of a tile-drained, Corn Belt watershed with fine-grained soils. Over a 3-yr period, N was monitored in the surface and ground water of an agricultural watershed in central Illinois. A significant amount of N was transported past the tile drains and into shallow ground water. The ground water nitrate was isotopically heavier than tile drain nitrate, which can be explained by denitrification in the subsurface. Denitrifying bacteria were found at depths to 10 m throughout the watershed. Laboratory and push-pull tests showed that a significant fraction of nitrate could be denitrified rapidly. We estimated that the N denitrified in shallow ground water was equivalent to 0.3 to 6.4% of the applied N or 9 to 27% of N exported via surface water. These estimates varied by water year and peaked in a year of normal precipitation after 2 yr of below average precipitation. Three years of monitoring data indicate that shallow ground water in watersheds with fine-grained soils may be a significant N sink compared with N exported via surface water.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)80-90
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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