To understand the spatial distribution and the possible sources of high ammonium concentration in the unconfined coastal aquifer of the Po River Delta lowland (Italy), a detailed characterization of inorganic nitrogen species was completed. A total of 59 boreholes were drilled to collect core samples and groundwater samples of the aquifer. Among them, four piezometers, located along a representative flow line, were chosen to monitor the inorganic nitrogen concentrations with depth. Ammonium is the prevalent nitrogen inorganic species in groundwater, and its concentration increases with depth and salinity. Very high ammonium concentrations are found in coincidence with peaty sediments in the salinized anoxic aquifer and in the low-lying aquitard. In particular, the elevated ammonium concentration derives from mineralization of organic matter present in fine sediments deposited in paleo-marsh environments. Copyright © 2012 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.