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This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 29 No. 4, p. 1075-1084
    Received: Mar 22, 1999

    * Corresponding author(s): kevin.devito@ualberta.ca
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Nitrate Dynamics in Relation to Lithology and Hydrologic Flow Path in a River Riparian Zone

  1. Kevin J. Devito *,
  2. Dan Fitzgerald,
  3. Alan R. Hill and
  4. Ramon Aravena
  1. Dep. of Biological Sciences, Univ. of Alberta, Edmonton, AB Canada T6G 2E9.
    Dep. of Earth Sciences, Univ. of Waterloo, Waterloo, ON Canada N2L 3G1.
    Dep. of Geography, York Univ., Toronto, ON Canada M3J 1P3.



The efficiency with which riparian zones remove nitrate (NO3) from contaminated ground water can vary with landscape setting. This study was conducted to determine the influence of flood plain geometry, lithology, hydrologic flow path, and nitrate transport on mechanisms of nitrate depletion of contaminated ground water. Patterns of NO3−N, chloride, and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations and δ15N-NO3 and δ18O-NO3 values in combination with detailed piezometric head measurements were investigated in a river floodplain connected to a large upland sand aquifer in an agricultural region near Alliston, Ontario, Canada. Ground water discharging to the forested floodplain from the sand aquifer exhibited large spatial variability in NO3−N concentrations (10–50 mg/L). The transport and depletion of NO3 was strongly influenced by floodplain geometry and lithology. Little ground water flow occurred through the low-conductivity matrix of peat in the floodplain. Plumes of NO3-rich ground water passed beneath the riparian wetland peat and flowed laterally in a 2- to 4-m-thick zone of permeable sands across the floodplain to the river. Analyses of the distribution of the NO3−N concentrations, isotopes, and DOC within the floodplain indicate that denitrification occurred within the sand aquifer near the river where nitrate-rich ground water interacted with buried channel sediments and surface water recharged from peat to the deeper sands. This study shows that the depth of permeable riparian sediments, ground water flow path, and the location of organic-rich subsurface deposits may be more important than the width of vegetated strips in influencing the ability of riparian zones to remove nitrate.

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