Soil Science Society of America

Subsurface transport of Phosphorus in Riparian floodplains: Influence of preferential flow paths

Received for publication April 29, 2008. For phosphorus (P) transport from upland areas to surface water systems, the primary transport mechanism is typically considered to be surface runoff with subsurface transport assumed negligible. However, certain local conditions can lead to an environment where subsurface transport may be significant. The objective of this research was to determine the potential of subsurface transport of P along streams characterized by cherty or gravel subsoils, especially the impact of preferential flow paths on P transport. At a field site along the Barren Fork Creek in northeastern Oklahoma, a trench was installed with the bottom at the topsoil/alluvial gravel interface. Fifteen piezometers were installed surrounding the trench to monitor flow and transport. In three experiments, water was pumped into the trench from the Barren Fork Creek to maintain a constant head. At the same time, a conservative tracer (Rhodamine WT) and/or potassium phosphate solution were injected into the trench at concentrations at 3 and 100 mg/L for Rhodamine WT and at 100 mg/L for P. Laboratory flow-cell experiments were also conducted on soil material <2 mm in size to determine the effect that flow velocity had on P sorption. Rhodamine WT and P were detected in some piezometers at equivalent concentrations as measured in the trench, suggesting the presence of preferential flow pathways and heterogeneous interaction between streams and subsurface transport pathways, even in nonstructured, coarse gravel soils. Phosphorus transport was retarded in nonpreferential flow paths. Breakthrough times were approximately equivalent for Rhodamine WT and P suggesting no colloidal-facilitated P transport. Results from laboratory flow-cell experiments suggested that higher velocity resulted in less P sorption for the alluvial subsoil. Therefore, differences in flow rates between preferential and nonpreferential flow pathways in the field led to variable sorption. The potential for nutrient subsurface transport shown by this alluvial system has implications regarding management of similar riparian floodplain systems.

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