Evaluation of nitrate nitrogen fluxes from a tile-drained watershed in central Iowa

J Environ Qual. 2003 Mar-Apr;32(2):642-53. doi: 10.2134/jeq2003.6420.


Nitrate N fluxes from tile-drained watersheds have been implicated in water quality studies of the Mississippi River basin, but actual NO3-N loads from small watersheds during long periods are poorly documented. We evaluated discharge and NO3-N fluxes passing the outlet of an Iowa watershed (5134 ha) and two of its tile-drained subbasins (493 and 863 ha) from mid-1992 through 2000. The cumulative NO3-N load from the catchment was 168 kg ha(-1), and 176 and 229 kg ha(-1) from the subbasins. The outlet had greater total discharge (1831 mm) and smaller flow-weighted mean NO3-N concentration (9.2 mg L(-1)) than the subbasins, while the larger subbasin had greater discharge (1712 vs. 1559 mm) and mean NO3-N concentration (13.4 vs. 11.3 mg L(-1)) than the smaller subbasin. Concentrations exceeding 10 mg L(-1) were common, but least frequent at the outlet. Nitrate N was generally not diluted by large flows, except during 1993 flooding. The outlet showed smaller NO3-N concentrations at low flows. Relationships between discharge and NO3-N flux showed log-log slopes near 1.0 for the subbasins, and 1.2 for the outlet, considering autocorrelation and measurement-error effects. We estimated denitrification of subbasin NO3-N fluxes in a hypothetical wetland using published data. Assuming that temperature and NO3-N supply could limit denitrification, then about 20% of the NO3-N would have been denitrified by a wetland constructed to meet USDA-approved criteria. The low efficiency results from the seasonal timing and NO3-N content of large flows. Therefore, agricultural and wetland best management practices (BMPs) are needed to achieve water quality goals in tile-drained watersheds.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Fertilizers
  • Iowa
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Seasons
  • Water Movements*
  • Water Pollutants / analysis*
  • Water Supply*


  • Fertilizers
  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants