Transport and fate of nitrate in headwater agricultural streams in Illinois

J Environ Qual. 2004 Jul-Aug;33(4):1296-304. doi: 10.2134/jeq2004.1296.


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 (NO(3)-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 NO(3)-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 NO(3)-N in the streams was also high (>7 mg N L(-1)). Uptake velocities for NO(3)-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 NO(3)-N in the water column. Denitrification uptake lengths (the average distance NO(3)-N travels before being denitrified) were long and indicated that denitrification in the streambed did not affect the transport of NO(3)-N. Loss rates for NO(3)-N in the streams were <5% d(-1) except during periods of low discharge and low NO(3)-N concentration, which occurred only in late summer and early autumn. Annually, most NO(3)-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.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Illinois
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Seasons
  • Water Movements
  • Water Pollutants / analysis*


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants