Source-pathway separation of multiple contaminants during a rainfall-runoff event in an artificially drained agricultural watershed

J Environ Qual. 2010 Apr 13;39(3):882-95. doi: 10.2134/jeq2009.0289. Print 2010 May-Jun.


A watershed's water quality is influenced by contaminant-transport pathways unique to each landscape. Accurate information on contaminant-pathways could provide a basis for mitigation through well-targeted approaches. This study determined dynamics of nitrate-N, total P, Escherichia coli, and sediment during a runoff event in Tipton Creek, Iowa. The watershed, under crop and livestock production, has extensive tile drainage discharging through an alluvial valley. A September 2006 storm yielded 5.9 mm of discharge during the ensuing 7 d, which was monitored at the outlet (19,850 ha), two tile-drainage outfalls (total 1856 ha), and a runoff flume (11 ha) within the sloped valley. Hydrograph separations indicated 13% of tile discharge was from surface intakes. Tile and outlet nitrate-N loads were similar, verifying subsurface tiles dominate nitrate delivery. On a unit-area basis, tile total P and E. coli loads, respectively, were about half and 30% of the outlet's; their rapid, synchronous timing showed surface intakes are an important pathway for both contaminants. Flume results indicated field runoff was a significant source of total P and E. coli loads, but not the dominant one. At the outlet, sediment, P, and E. coli were reasonably synchronous. Radionuclide activities of (7)Be and (210)Pb in suspended sediments showed sheet-and-rill erosion sourced only 22% of sediment contributions; therefore, channel sources dominated and were an important source of P and E. coli. The contaminants followed unique pathways, necessitating separate mitigation strategies. To comprehensively address water quality, erosion-control and nitrogen-management practices currently encouraged could be complemented by buffering surface intakes and stabilizing stream banks.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Conservation of Natural Resources
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Escherichia coli / isolation & purification
  • Geologic Sediments
  • Nitrates / chemistry
  • Nitrogen / chemistry
  • Phosphorus / chemistry
  • Rain*
  • Rivers
  • Water / chemistry*
  • Water Microbiology
  • Water Movements*
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / chemistry*
  • Water Pollution, Chemical


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical
  • Water
  • Phosphorus
  • Nitrogen