US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in J. Environ. Qual. 37:994–1009 (2008).


The ability of natural attenuation to mitigate agricultural nitrate contamination in recharging aquifers was investigated in four important agricultural settings in the United States. The study used laboratory analyses, field measurements, and flow and transport modeling for monitoring well transects (0.5 to 2.5 km in length) in the San Joaquin watershed, California, the Elkhorn watershed, Nebraska, the Yakima watershed, Washington, and the Chester watershed, Maryland. Ground water analyses included major ion chemistry, dissolved gases, nitrogen and oxygen stable isotopes, and estimates of recharge date. Sediment analyses included potential electron donors and stable nitrogen and carbon isotopes. Within each site and among aquifer-based medians, dissolved oxygen decreases with ground water age, and excess N2 from denitrification increases with age. Stable isotopes and excess N2 imply minimal denitrifying activity at the Maryland and Washington sites, partial denitrification at the California site, and total denitrification across portions of the Nebraska site. At all sites, recharging electron donor concentrations are not sufficient to account for the losses of dissolved oxygen and nitrate, implying that relict, solid phase electron donors drive redox reactions. Zero-order rates of denitrification range from 0 to 0.14 μmol N L−1d−1, comparable to observations of other studies using the same methods. Many values reported in the literature are, however, orders of magnitude higher, which is attributed to a combination of method limitations and bias for selection of sites with rapid denitrification. In the shallow aquifers below these agricultural fields, denitrification is limited in extent and will require residence times of decades or longer to mitigate modern nitrate contamination.