Nitrate attenuation in groundwater: a review of biogeochemical controlling processes

Water Res. 2008 Oct;42(16):4215-32. doi: 10.1016/j.watres.2008.07.020. Epub 2008 Jul 23.


Biogeochemical processes controlling nitrate attenuation in aquifers are critically reviewed. An understanding of the fate of nitrate in groundwater is vital for managing risks associated with nitrate pollution, and to safeguard groundwater supplies and groundwater-dependent surface waters. Denitrification is focused upon as the dominant nitrate attenuation process in groundwater. As denitrifying bacteria are essentially ubiquitous in the subsurface, the critical limiting factors are oxygen and electron donor concentration and availability. Variability in other environmental conditions such as nitrate concentration, nutrient availability, pH, temperature, presence of toxins and microbial acclimation appears to be less important, exerting only secondary influences on denitrification rates. Other nitrate depletion mechanisms such as dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium and assimilation of nitrate into microbial biomass are unlikely to be important in most subsurface settings relative to denitrification. Further research is recommended to improve current understanding on the influence of organic carbon, sulphur and iron electron donors, physical restrictions on microbial activity in dual porosity aquifers, influences of environmental condition (e.g. pH in poorly buffered environments and salinity in coastal or salinized soil settings), co-contaminant influences (particularly the contrasting inhibitory and electron donor influences of pesticides) and improved quantification of denitrification rates in the laboratory and field.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Environment
  • Nitrates / chemistry*
  • Oxidation-Reduction
  • Water / chemistry*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / chemistry*


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Water