Groundwater flow in saturated riparian buffers and implications for nitrate removal

Andrea R. McEachran, Loulou C. Dickey, Chris R. Rehmann, Thomas M. Isenhart, Tyler A. Groh, Michael A. Perez, Cassandra J. Rutherford

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


A saturated riparian buffer (SRB) is an edge-of-field conservation practice that intercepts tile drainage and reduces nitrate flux to nearby streams by redistributing the flow as shallow groundwater. In this study, a three-dimensional, finite-difference groundwater model representative of SRBs in central Iowa was developed to assess the flow of groundwater and implications for nitrate removal during spring conditions, when flow to the SRB is highest. The model reproduces field observations of water level with Nash–Sutcliffe efficiency of 0.68, which is deemed acceptable for hydrologic models. The modeling shows that groundwater flow is three-dimensional near the distribution pipe and the stream and primarily one-dimensional in the rest of the buffer. The path the water takes in flowing toward the stream depends on where it exits the distribution pipe. When nitrate is not limiting, the potential for nitrate removal depends on the length of the path—and thus travel time—and depth because denitrification potential varies with depth. Travel time Tt can be estimated well with slight modifications to a one-dimensional approximation: Tt = 1.11Lx/vx, where Lx is the buffer width and vx is a one-dimensional approximation of the average linear velocity of groundwater. Refining knowledge of SRB function is an important step toward enhancing design for improving water quality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)64-73
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Environmental Quality
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Environmental Engineering
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law


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