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This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 14 No. 4, p. 472-478
    Received: Nov 19, 1984

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Riparian Losses of Nitrate from Agricultural Drainage Waters1

  1. T. C. Jacobs and
  2. J. W. Gilliam2



Increased nutrient levels in surface streams and eutrophication of some Coastal Plain waters has led to inquiries about both the amount and control of nitrate losses from agricultural fields. Nitrate concentrations in shallow groundwaters beneath cultivated fields and in the drainage waters from those fields were examined to determine the fate of nitrogen lost to drainage waters. From a Middle Coastal Plain watershed where well- and moderately well-drained soils dominate agricultural fields, 10 to 55 kg ha−1 yr−1 NO3-N moved from the fields in subsurface drainage water. However, most fields are bordered by forested buffers between the cultivated areas and streams which consist of poorly and very poorly-drained soils covered by dense vegetation. The evidence strongly indicated that a substantial part of the nitrate in the drainage water was denitrified in the buffer strip and that assimilation by vegetation was insignificant. Buffer strips of < 16 m were effective for inducing significant losses of nitrate before drainage water reached the stream. A field containing subsurface drainage tubing which emptied into open ditches moved more nitrogen into surface water than those fields without subsurface drainage improvements. From a Lower Coastal Plain watershed, a dense clay layer below the surface horizon reduced subsurface drainage resulting in total losses from the field of only 6 to 12 kg ha−1 yr−1 NO3-N. These losses were mostly in surface runoff. The extensive floodplain of the natural stream had a high capacity to reduce large quantities of N but the low total loss from the watershed is largely a result of low input to the drainage water from nonpoint sources. Soils included in this study were Typic Paleudults, Arenic Paleudults, Aquic Hapludults, and Aeric Paleaquults.

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