US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Science of the Total Environment 848 (2022) 157345.


U.S. government works are not subject to copyright.


Recently, the subsoils of ephemeral stream(arroyos) floodplains in the northern Chihuahuan Desert were discovered to contain large naturally occurring NO3 reservoirs (floodplain:~38,000 kg NO3-N/ha; background:~60 kg NO3-N/ha). These reservoirs may be mobilized through land use change or natural stream channel migration which makes differentiating between anthropogenic and natural groundwaterNO3sources challenging. In this study, the fate and sources of NO3 were investigated in an area with multiple NO3 sources such as accidental sewer line releases and sewage lagoons aswell as natural reservoirs of subsoil NO3. To differentiate sources, this study used a large suite of geochemical tools including δ15N[NO3], δ18O[NO3], δ15N[N2], δ13C[DIC], 14C, tritium (3H), dissolved gas concentrations, major ion chemistry, and contaminants of emerging concern (CEC) including artificial sweeteners. NO3 at sites with the highest concentrations (25 to 229 mg/L NO3-N) were determined to be largely sourced from naturally occurring subsoil NO3 based on δ15N[NO3] (<8 ‰) and mass ratios of Cl/Br (〈100) and NO3/Cl (>1.5). Anthropogenic NO3 was deciphered using mass ratios of Cl/Br (>120) and NO3/Cl (<1), δ15N[NO3] (>8‰), and CEC detections. Nitrogen isotope analyses indicated that denitrification is fairly limited in the field area. CEC were detected at 67 % of sites including 3H dead sites (<1 pCi/L) with low percent modern carbon-14 (PMC; <30 %). Local supply wells are 3H dead with low PMC; as 3H does not re-equilibrate and 14C is very slow to re-equilibrate during recirculation through infrastructure, sites with low PMC, 3H < 1 pCi/L, and CEC detections were interpreted as locations with substantial anthropogenic groundwater recharge. Neotame was used to identify locations of very recent (<15 years before present) or ongoing wastewater influxes to the aquifer. This work shows the important influence of naturally occurring subsoil NO3 reservoirs on groundwater in arid regions and the major contribution of artificial recharge.