Decadal geochemical and isotopic trends for nitrate in a transboundary aquifer and implications for agricultural beneficial management practices

Environ Sci Technol. 2006 Aug 1;40(15):4626-32. doi: 10.1021/es060724w.


Nitrate contamination of aquifers is a global agricultural problem. Agricultural beneficial management practices (BMPs) are often promoted as a means to reduce nitrate contamination in aquifers through producer optimized management of inorganic fertilizer and animal manure inputs. In this study, decadal trends (1991-2004) in nitrate concentrations in conjunction with 3H/3He groundwater ages and nitrate stable isotopes (delta15N, delta18O) were examined to determine whether BMPs aimed at reducing aquifer-scale nitrate contamination in the transboundary Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer were effective. A general trend of increasing nitrate concentrations in young groundwater (< approximately 5 yr) suggested that voluntary BMPs were not having a positive impact in achieving groundwater quality targets. While the stable isotope data showed that animal manure was and still is the prevalent source of nitrate in the aquifer, a recent decrease in delta15N in nitrate suggests a BMP driven shift away from animal wastes toward inorganic fertilizers. The coupling of long-term monitoring of nitrate concentrations, nitrate isotopes, and 3H/3He age dating proved to be invaluable, and they should be considered in future assessments of the impact of BMPs on nutrients in groundwaters. The findings reveal that BMPs should be better linked to groundwater nutrient monitoring programs in order to more quickly identify BMP deficiencies, and to dynamically adjust nutrient loadings to help achieve water quality objectives.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture / methods
  • Agriculture / trends*
  • Agrochemicals / analysis
  • Canada
  • Elements, Radioactive / analysis
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Fertilizers / analysis
  • Fresh Water / chemistry*
  • Geologic Sediments / analysis
  • Geologic Sediments / chemistry*
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Nitrogen Isotopes / analysis*
  • Waste Management / methods


  • Agrochemicals
  • Elements, Radioactive
  • Fertilizers
  • Nitrates
  • Nitrogen Isotopes