Identifying pathways and processes affecting nitrate and orthophosphate inputs to streams in agricultural watersheds
Received for publication November 14, 2008. Understanding nutrient pathways to streams will improve nutrient management strategies and estimates of the time lag between when changes in land use practices occur and when water quality effects that result from these changes are observed. Nitrate and orthophosphate (OP) concentrations in several environmental compartments were examined in watersheds having a range of base flow index (BFI) values across the continental United States to determine the dominant pathways for water and nutrient inputs to streams. Estimates of the proportion of stream nitrate that was derived from groundwater increased as BFI increased. Nitrate concentration gradients between groundwater and surface water further supported the groundwater source of nitrate in these high BFI streams. However, nitrate concentrations in stream-bed pore water in all settings were typically lower than stream or upland groundwater concentrations, suggesting that nitrate discharge to streams was not uniform through the bed. Rather, preferential pathways (e.g., springs, seeps) may allow high nitrate groundwater to bypass sites of high biogeochemical transformation. Rapid pathway compartments (e.g., overland flow, tile drains) had OP concentrations that were typically higher than in streams and were important OP conveyers in most of these watersheds. In contrast to nitrate, the proportion of stream OP that is derived from ground water did not systematically increase as BFI increased. While typically not the dominant source of OP, groundwater discharge was an important pathway of OP transport to streams when BFI values were very high and when geochemical conditions favored OP mobility in groundwater.