Natural Resources, School of


Assessing Decadal Trends of a Nitrate-Contaminated Shallow Aquifer in Western Nebraska Using Groundwater Isotopes, Age-Dating, and Monitoring

Martin J. Wells, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Troy E. Gilmore, University of Nebraska - Lincoln
Aaron R. Mittelstet, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Daniel D. Snow, University of Nebraska at Lincoln
Steven S. Sibray, University of Nebraska - Lincoln

Document Type Article

© 2018 by the authors

Open access



Shallow aquifers are prone to nitrate contamination worldwide. In western Nebraska, high groundwater nitrate concentrations ([NO3- ]) have resulted in the exploration of new groundwater and nitrogen management regulations in the North Platte Natural Resources District (NPNRD). A small region of NPNRD (“Dutch Flats”) was the focus of intensive groundwater sampling by the United States Geological Survey from 1995 to 1999. Nearly two decades later, notable shifts have occurred in variables related to groundwater recharge and [NO3-], including irrigation methods. The objective of this study was to evaluate how changes in these variables, in part due to regulatory changes, have impacted nitrate-contaminated groundwater in the Dutch Flats area. Groundwater samples were collected to assess changes in: (1) recharge rates; (2) biogeochemical processes; and (3) [NO3-]. Groundwater age increased in 63% of wells and estimated recharge rates were lower for 88% of wells sampled (n = 8). However, mean age and recharge rate estimated in 2016 (19.3 years; R = 0.35 m/year) did not differ significantly from mean values determined in 1998 (15.6 years; R = 0.50 m/year). ᵹ15N-NO3- (n = 14) and dissolved oxygen data indicate no major changes in biogeochemical processes. Available long-term data suggest a downward trend in normalized [NO3-] from 1998 to 2016, and lower [NO3-] was observed in 60% of wells sampled in both years (n = 87), but median values were not significantly different. Collectively, results suggest the groundwater system is responding to environmental variables to a degree that is detectable (e.g., trends in [NO3-]), although more time and/or substantial changes may be required before it is possible to detect significantly different mean recharge.