During the last 40 years, nitrate (NO3−) has become one of the most common ground water contaminants. Stream riparian zones are considered important ecological ecotones that decrease the NO3− load of ground water discharging into streams. This study uses NO3−/Cl− ratios, natural abundances of15N and18O in NO3−, and an in situ15NO3− tracer experiment to evaluate NO3− reducing processes occurring in ground water within a narrow grassed buffer strip bordering a stream in an agricultural watershed. The NO3−/Cl− ratios (1.9-0.0 [M/M]) indicate that both NO3− consuming processes and mixing of two ground water flow regimes with different NO3− loads contribute to the drop observed in ground water NO3− concentrations within the riparian zone. δ15N and δ18O of the ground water NO3− within the riparian zone (δ15N = 5.1 to 48.8 %c; δ18O = 1.1 to 17.8 %c) were enriched compared to the ground water below the adjacent cultivated field (δ15N = 3.8 to 10.1 %0; δ18O = 0.5 to 6.2 %c). A significant linear relationship (r2=0.97) between ground water δ15N and δ18O in NO3− was found, which is consistent with NO3− consumption by microbial denitrification. The estimated enrichment factors for15N are a factor of 1.5 higher than for18O. The in situ15NO3− tracer experiment conclusively confirmed that denitrification is occurring within the ground water of the riparian zone and demonstrates that denitrification rates can be directly measured in situ.
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