Quantifying an aquifer nitrate budget and future nitrate discharge using field data from streambeds and well nests

Troy E. Gilmore, David P. Genereux, D. Kip Solomon, Kathleen M. Farrell, Helena Mitasova

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


Novel groundwater sampling (age, flux, and nitrate) carried out beneath a streambed and in wells was used to estimate (1) the current rate of change of nitrate storage, dSNO3 /dt, in a contaminated unconfined aquifer, and (2) future [NO- 3]FWM (the flow-weighted mean nitrate concentration in groundwater discharge) and fNO3 (the nitrate flux from aquifer to stream). Estimates of dSNO3 /dt suggested that at the time of sampling (2013) the nitrate storage in the aquifer was decreasing at an annual rate (mean = −9 mmol/m2yr) equal to about one-tenth the rate of nitrate input by recharge. This is consistent with data showing a slow decrease in the [NO- 3] of groundwater recharge in recent years. Regarding future [NO- 3]FWM and fNO3 , predictions based on well data show an immediate decrease that becomes more rapid after ∼5 years before leveling out in the early 2040s. Predictions based on streambed data generally show an increase in future [NO- 3]FWM and fNO3 until the late 2020s, followed by a decrease before leveling out in the 2040s. Differences show the potential value of using information directly from the groundwater—surface water interface to quantify the future impact of groundwater nitrate on surface water quality. The choice of denitrification kinetics was similarly important; compared to zero-order kinetics, a first-order rate law levels out estimates of future [NO- 3]FWM and fNO3 (lower peak, higher minimum) as legacy nitrate is flushed from the aquifer. Major fundamental questions about nonpoint-source aquifer contamination can be answered without a complex numerical model or long-term monitoring program.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)9046-9065
Number of pages20
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number11
StatePublished - Nov 1 2016


  • agriculture
  • groundwater
  • groundwater-surface water interaction
  • nitrate
  • recharge
  • transit time

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Water Science and Technology


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