Agronomy and Horticulture Department


Date of this Version



Exner, M. E., A. J. Hirsh, and R. F. Spalding (2014), Nebraska’s groundwater legacy: Nitrate contamination beneath irrigated cropland, Water Resour. Res., 50, 4474– 4489, doi:10.1002/2013WR015073.


This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution- NonCommercial-NoDerivs License


A 31 year record of ~44,000 nitrate analyses in ~11,500 irrigation wells was utilized to depict the decadal expansion of groundwater nitrate contamination (N>10 mg/L) in the irrigated corn-growing areas of eastern and central Nebraska and analyze long-term nitrate concentration trends in 17 management areas (MAs) subject to N fertilizer and budgeting requirements. The 1.3 M contaminated hectares were characterized by irrigation method, soil drainage, and vadose zone thickness and lithology. The areal extent and growth of contaminated groundwater in two predominately sprinkler-irrigated areas was only ~20% smaller beneath well-drained silt loams with thick clayey-silt unsaturated layers and unsaturated thicknesses >15 m (400,000 ha and 15,000 ha/yr) than beneath well and excessively well-drained soils with very sandy vadose zones (511,000 ha and 18,600 ha/yr). Much slower expansion (3700 ha/yr) occurred in the 220,000 contaminated hectares in the central Platte valley characterized by predominately gravity irrigation on thick, well-drained silt loams above a thin (~5.3 m), sandy unsaturated zone. The only reversals in long-term concentration trends occurred in two MAs (120,500 ha) within this contaminated area. Concentrations declined 0.14 and 0.20 mg N/L/yr (p<0.02) to ~18.3 and 18.8 mg N/L, respectively, during >20 years of management. Average annual concentrations in 10 MAs are increasing (p<0.05) and indicate that average nitrate concentrations in leachates below the root zone and groundwater concentrations have not yet reached steady state. While management practices likely have slowed increases in groundwater nitrate concentrations, irrigation and nutrient applications must be more effectively controlled to retain nitrate in the root zone.