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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract - Landscape and Watershed Processes

Transport and Fate of Nitrate in Headwater Agricultural Streams in Illinois


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 33 No. 4, p. 1296-1304
    Received: June 13, 2003

    * Corresponding author(s): troyer@kent.edu
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  1. Todd V. Royer *ac,
  2. Jennifer L. Tankb and
  3. Mark B. Davida
  1. a Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois, 1102 South Goodwin Avenue, Urbana, IL 61801
    c Department of Biological Sciences, Kent State University, 256 Cunningham Hall, Kent, OH 44242
    b Department of Biological Sciences, University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame, IN 46556


Nitrogen inputs to the Gulf of Mexico have increased during recent decades and agricultural regions in the upper Midwest, such as those in Illinois, are a major source of N to the Mississippi River. How strongly denitrification affects the transport of nitrate (NO3–N) in Illinois streams has not been directly assessed. We used the nutrient spiraling model to assess the role of in-stream denitrification in affecting the concentration and downstream transport of NO3–N in five headwater streams in agricultural areas of east-central Illinois. Denitrification in stream sediments was measured approximately monthly from April 2001 through January 2002. Denitrification rates tended to be high (up to 15 mg N m−2 h−1), but the concentration of NO3–N in the streams was also high (>7 mg N L−1). Uptake velocities for NO3–N (uptake rate/concentration) were lower than reported for undisturbed streams, indicating that denitrification was not an efficient N sink relative to the concentration of NO3–N in the water column. Denitrification uptake lengths (the average distance NO3–N travels before being denitrified) were long and indicated that denitrification in the streambed did not affect the transport of NO3–N. Loss rates for NO3–N in the streams were <5% d−1 except during periods of low discharge and low NO3–N concentration, which occurred only in late summer and early autumn. Annually, most NO3–N in these headwater sites appeared to be exported to downstream water bodies rather than denitrified, suggesting previous estimates of N losses through in-stream denitrification may have been overestimated.

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