By employing chemical and isotopic tracers ((15)N and (18)O in NO(3)(-)), we investigated the main processes controlling nitrate distribution in the unsaturated zone and aquifer. Soil water was extracted from two soil cores drilled in a typical agricultural cropping area of the North China Plain (NCP), where groundwater was also sampled. The results indicate that evaporation and denitrification are the two major causes of the distribution of nitrate in soil water extracts in the unsaturated zone. Evaporation from unsaturated zone is evidenced by a positive correlation between chloride and nitrate, and denitrification by a strong linear relationship between [Formula: see text] and ln(NO(3)(-)/Cl). The latter is estimated to account for up to 50% of the nitrate loss from soil drainage. In the saturated zone, nitrate is reduced at varying extents (100 mg/L and 10 mg/L at two sites, respectively), largely by dilution of the aquifer water.
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