Assessment of Nitrification Potential in Ground Water Using Short Term, Single-Well Injection Experiments
Nitrification was measured within a sand and gravel aquifer on Cape Cod, MA, using a series of single-well injection tests. The aquifer contained a wastewater-derived contaminant plume, the core of which was anoxic and contained ammonium. The study was conducted near the downgradient end of the ammonium zone, which was characterized by inversely trending vertical gradients of oxygen (270 to 0 μM) and ammonium (19 to 625 μM) and appeared to be a potentially active zone for nitrification. The tests were conducted by injecting a tracer solution (ambient ground water + added constituents) into selected locations within the gradients using multilevel samplers. After injection, the tracers moved by natural ground water flow and were sampled with time from the injection port. Rates of nitrification were determined from changes in nitrate and nitrite concentration relative to bromide. Initial tests were conducted with 15N-enriched ammonium; subsequent tests examined the effect of adding ammonium, nitrite, or oxygen above background concentrations and of adding difluoromethane, a nitrification inhibitor. In situ net nitrate production exceeded net nitrite production by 3- to 6- fold and production rates of both decreased in the presence of difluoromethane. Nitrification rates were 0.02–0.28 μmol (L aquifer)−1 h−1 with in situ oxygen concentrations and up to 0.81 μmol (L aquifer)−1 h−1 with non-limiting substrate concentrations. Geochemical considerations indicate that the rates derived from single-well injection tests yielded overestimates of in situ rates, possibly because the injections promoted small-scale mixing within a transport-limited reaction zone. Nonetheless, these tests were useful for characterizing ground water nitrification in situ and for comparing potential rates of activity when the tracer cloud included non-limiting ammonium and oxygen concentrations.