Groundwater inflow in rivers as a controlling factor to surface water nitrate concentrations and impact of groundwater age distribution on response times for remediation strategies

J Contam Hydrol. 2021 Aug;241:103820. doi: 10.1016/j.jconhyd.2021.103820. Epub 2021 May 4.


Diffuse groundwater contamination by intense fertilizer use is a widespread problem in most of the agricultural regions in West-Europe and in many other countries worldwide. As a result elevated nitrate concentrations in groundwater are found, and as groundwater is the source of baseflow into rivers and streams, also surface waters show increased nitrate levels. Flanders in the north of Belgium is no exception and despite restrictions on the fertilizer use and remediation practices initiated in the mid-1990s, and still ongoing, in many stream monitoring points, peak concentrations are measured above the 50 mg/l criterium. In many monitoring stations there is apparently a long delay between the start of the restrictions and effect on water quality. Often this delay is related to high concentrations in the groundwater inflow and long residence and travel times of groundwater feeding the streams. To better understand this behavior and estimate response times a tool was developed that incorporates the main water flows in a typical catchment and considers the effects of varying groundwater ages. This tool is conceived as a parsimonious lumped parameter model, simple and easy enough to be used by many people but still capturing the main mechanisms end processes. In this paper the tool is explained and it is applied on two testcases in Flanders to show its performance.

Keywords: Groundwater travel times; Groundwater-surface water interaction; Model; Nitrate pollution; Time lag.

MeSH terms

  • Age Distribution
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Groundwater*
  • Humans
  • Nitrates / analysis
  • Reaction Time
  • Rivers
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical* / analysis


  • Nitrates
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical