Groundwater contributions of flow and nitrogen in a headwater agricultural watershed

Brian W. Redder, Casey D. Kennedy, Anthony R. Buda, Gordon Folmar, Elizabeth W. Boyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Nonpoint sources of nitrogen (N) and other nutrients are a major source of water pollution within the Chesapeake Bay watershed and other basins around the world. Human activities associated with agricultural practices can account for a large percentage of N loadings delivered to streams and rivers. This work aims to improve understanding of N transport from groundwater to surface waters, quantifying the principal hydrological processes driving water and N fluxes into and out of a headwater agricultural stream reach. The study site is a 175-m stream reach in a heavily cultivated 40-ha watershed in east-central Pennsylvania. This subwatershed is underlain by fractured shale bedrock, and receives most of its baseflow from groundwater, either by diffuse matrix discharge through the streambed or by localized discharge through riparian seeps. Samples of stream, seep, and shallow groundwater were collected approximately monthly under steady hydrologic conditions in 2017. Calculated matrix flow from hydraulic head and conductivity measurements paired with differential stream gauging was used to solve for the riparian seep flux using a mass balance approach. Riparian seep fluxes ranged from 45 to 217 m3/d, transporting 0.6–4.2 kg N d−1 of nitrate-N from the fractured bedrock aquifer to the stream. Hydrochemical data suggest that the stream is mainly disconnected from the underlying aquifer and that seeps supply essentially all water and N to the system. Seeps are likely sourced with N in nearby agricultural fields and accelerated through the system with shorter residence times than shallow groundwater. Water isotope data reinforced this notion. This study underscores the importance of agriculture as a source of N to ground and surface waters. Identifying source areas that are causing groundwater enrichment of N and seep areas where N discharges to streams is beneficial for developing N pollution mitigation strategies and implementing management practices that aim to reduce nutrient loads to the Chesapeake Bay.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere14179
JournalHydrological Processes
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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