Long-term effects of nitrogen fertilizer use on ground water nitrate in two small watersheds

J Environ Qual. 2003 Nov-Dec;32(6):2158-71. doi: 10.2134/jeq2003.2158.


Changes in agricultural management can minimize NO3-N leaching, but then the time needed to improve ground water quality is uncertain. A study was conducted in two first-order watersheds (30 and 34 ha) in Iowa's Loess Hills. Both were managed in continuous corn (Zea mays L.) from 1964 through 1995 with similar N fertilizer applications (average 178 kg ha(-1) yr(-1)), except one received applications averaging 446 kg N ha(-1) yr(-1) between 1969 and 1974. This study determined if NO3-N from these large applications could persist in ground water and baseflow, and affect comparison between new crop rotations implemented in 1996. Piezometer nests were installed and deep cores collected in 1996, then ground water levels and NO3-N concentrations were monitored. Tritium and stable isotopes (2H, 18O) were determined on 33 water samples in 2001. Baseflow from the heavily N-fertilized watershed had larger average NO3-N concentrations, by 8 mg L(-1). Time-of-travel calculations and tritium data showed ground water resides in these watersheds for decades. "Bomb-peak" precipitation (1963-1980) most influenced tritium concentrations near lower slope positions, while deep ground water was dominantly pre-1953 precipitation. Near the stream, greater recharge and mixed-age ground water was suggested by stable isotope and tritium data, respectively. Using sediment-core data collected from the deep unsaturated zone between 1972 and 1996, the increasing depth of a NO3-N pulse was related to cumulative baseflow (r2 = 0.98), suggesting slow downward movement of NO3-N since the first experiment. Management changes implemented in 1996 will take years to fully influence ground water NO3-N. Determining ground water quality responses to new agricultural practices may take decades in some watersheds.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Fertilizers / analysis*
  • Humans
  • Iowa
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Nitrogen / analysis*
  • Soil Pollutants / analysis*
  • Water Movements
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Water Supply*


  • Fertilizers
  • Nitrates
  • Soil Pollutants
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Nitrogen