Modeling potential vadose-zone transport of nitrogen from onsite wastewater systems at the development scale

J Contam Hydrol. 2007 Apr 1;91(1-2):184-201. doi: 10.1016/j.jconhyd.2006.08.012. Epub 2006 Dec 21.


Water in the urban front-range corridor of Colorado has become an increasingly critical resource as the state faces both supply issues as well as anthropogenic degradation of water quality in several aquifers used for drinking water. A proposed development (up to 1100 homes over two quarter-quarter sections) at Todd Creek, Colorado, a suburb of Westminster located about 20 miles northeast of Denver, is considering use of onsite wastewater systems (OWS) to treat and remove domestic wastewater. Local health and environmental agencies have concerns for potential impacts to local water quality. Nitrogen treatment in the vadose zone and subsequent transport to ground water at a development scale is the focus of this investigation. The numerical model HYDRUS 1D was used, with input based on site-specific data and several transport parameters estimated from statistical distribution, to simulate nitrate concentrations reaching ground water. The model predictions were highly sensitive to mass-loading of nitrogen from OWS and the denitrification rate coefficient. The mass loading is relatively certain for the large number of proposed OWS. However, reasonable values for the denitrification rate coefficients vary over three orders of magnitude. Using the median value from a cumulative frequency distribution function, based on rates obtained from the literature, resulted in simulated output nitrate concentrations that were less than 1% of regulatory maximum concentrations. Reasonable rates at the lower end of the reported range, corresponding to lower 95% confidence interval estimates, result in simulated nitrate concentrations reaching groundwater above regulatory limits.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cities
  • Colorado
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Models, Statistical
  • Nitrates / chemistry
  • Nitrates / metabolism
  • Nitrogen / analysis*
  • Nitrogen / toxicity
  • Rivers
  • Sewage / chemistry*
  • Urban Health
  • Water Movements
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / toxicity
  • Water Purification / methods*
  • Water Supply*


  • Nitrates
  • Sewage
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Nitrogen