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This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 36 No. 3, p. 664-680
     
    Received: Feb 27, 2006
    Published: May, 2007


    * Corresponding author(s): jkbohlke@usgs.gov
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doi:10.2134/jeq2006.0084

Ground Water Stratification and Delivery of Nitrate to an Incised Stream under Varying Flow Conditions

  1. J. K. Böhlke *a,
  2. Michael E. O'Connellab and
  3. Karen L. Prestegaardb
  1. a USGS, 431 National Center, Reston, VA 20192
    b Dep. of Geology, Univ. of Maryland, College Park, MD 20742

Abstract

Ground water processes affecting seasonal variations of surface water nitrate concentrations were investigated in an incised first-order stream in an agricultural watershed with a riparian forest in the coastal plain of Maryland. Aquifer characteristics including sediment stratigraphy, geochemistry, and hydraulic properties were examined in combination with chemical and isotopic analyses of ground water, macropore discharge, and stream water. The ground water flow system exhibits vertical stratification of hydraulic properties and redox conditions, with sub-horizontal boundaries that extend beneath the field and adjacent riparian forest. Below the minimum water table position, ground water age gradients indicate low recharge rates (2–5 cm yr−1) and long residence times (years to decades), whereas the transient ground water wedge between the maximum and minimum water table positions has a relatively short residence time (months to years), partly because of an upward increase in hydraulic conductivity. Oxygen reduction and denitrification in recharging ground waters are coupled with pyrite oxidation near the minimum water table elevation in a mottled weathering zone in Tertiary marine glauconitic sediments. The incised stream had high nitrate concentrations during high flow conditions when much of the ground water was transmitted rapidly across the riparian zone in a shallow oxic aquifer wedge with abundant outflow macropores, and low nitrate concentrations during low flow conditions when the oxic wedge was smaller and stream discharge was dominated by upwelling from the deeper denitrified parts of the aquifer. Results from this and similar studies illustrate the importance of near-stream geomorphology and subsurface geology as controls of riparian zone function and delivery of nitrate to streams in agricultural watersheds.

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