Nitrogen balance in and export from an agricultural watershed

Mark B. David, Lowell E. Gentry, David A. Kovacic, Karen M. Smith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Surface water nitrate (NO3/-) pollution from agricultural production is well established, although few studies have linked field N budgets, NO3/- loss in tile drained watersheds, and surface water NO3/- loads. This study was conducted to determine field sources, transport, and fiver export of NO3/- from an agricultural watershed. The Embarras River watershed at Camargo (48 173 ha) in east-central Illinois was investigated. The watershed is a tile-drained area of fertile Mollisols (typical soil is Drummer silty clay loam, a fine-silty, mixed mesic Typic Haplaquoll) with primary cropping of maize (Zea mays L) and soybean (Glycine max L.). Agricultural field N sources and sinks, tile drainage NOn concentrations and fluxes, and fiver NO3/- export were estimated for the entire watershed. Large pools of inorganic N were present following each harvest of maize and soybean (average of 3670 Mg N yr-1 over a 6-yr period). The source of most of the inorganic N was divided between N fertilizer and soil mineralized N. High concentrations of NO3/- were found in four monitored drainage tiles (5-49 mg N L-1), and tile concentrations of NO3/- were synchronous with Embarras River NO3/- concentrations. High flow events contributed most of the yearly NO3/- loss (24.7 kg N ha-1 yr-1) from tile drained fields in the 1995 water year (1 Oct. 1994 through 30 Sept. 1995) where high rainfall events occurred in a low overall precipitation year (in one tile 21% of the annual load was exported in 1 d). During the 1996 water year, NO3/- export in tiles was much higher (44.2 kg N ha-1 yr-1) due to greater precipitation, and individual days were less important. On average, about 49% (average of 1688 Mg N yr-1 over a 6-yr period) of the field inorganic N pool was estimated to be leached through drain tiles and seepage and was exported by the Embarras River, although depending on weather and field N balances this ranged from 25 to 85% of the field N balance over the 6-yr period. It seems likely that agricultural disturbance (high mineralization inputs of N) and N fertilization combined with tile drainage contributed significantly to NO3/- export in the Embarras River.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1038-1048
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1997

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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