Controlling nitrate leaching in irrigated agriculture

R. F. Spalding, D. G. Watts, J. S. Schepers, M. E. Burbach, M. E. Exner, R. J. Poreda, G. E. Martin

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

95 Scopus citations


The impact of improved irrigation and nutrient practices on ground water quality was assessed at the Nebraska Management System Evaluation Area using ground water quality data collected from 16 depths at 31 strategically located multilevel samplers three times annually from 1991 to 1996. The site was sectioned into four 13.4-ha management fields: (i) a conventional furrow-irrigated corn (Zea mays L.) field; (ii) a surge-irrigated corn field, which received 60% less water and 31% less N fertilizer than the conventional field; (iii) a center pivot-irrigated corn field, which received 66% less water and 37% less N fertilizer than the conventional field; and (iv) a center pivotirrigated alfalfa (Medicago sativa L.) field. Dating (3H/3He) indicated that the uppermost ground water was <1 to 2 yr old and that the aquifer water was stratified with the deepest water ∼20 yr old. Recharge during the wet growing season in 1993 reduced the average NO3-N concentration in the top 3 m 20 mg L-1, effectively diluting and replacing the NO3-contaminated water. Nitrate concentrations in the shallow zone of the aquifer increased with depth to water. Beneath the conventional and surge-irrigated fields, shallow ground water concentrations returned to the initial 30 mg NO3-N L-1 level by fall 1995; however, beneath the center pivot-irrigated corn field, concentrations remained at ∼13 mg NO3-N L-1 until fall 1996. A combination of sprinkler irrigation and N fertigation significantly reduced N leaching with only minor reductions (6%) in crop yield.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1184-1194
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2001

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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


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