Intensive agriculture, nitrogen legacies, and water quality: Intersections and implications

Idhayachandhiran Ilampooranan, Kimberly J. Van Meter, Nandita B. Basu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

15 Scopus citations


More than a century of land-use changes and intensive agriculture across the Mississippi River Basin (MRB) has led to a degradation of soil and water resources. Nitrogen (N) leaching from the excess application of fertilizers has been implicated in algal blooms and the development of large, coastal 'dead zones'. It is, however, increasingly recognized that water quality today is a function not only of the current-year inputs but also of legacy N within the watershed - legacy that has accumulated in soil and groundwater over decades of high-input agricultural practices. Although attempts have been made to quantify the extent to which soil organic nitrogen (SON) is being sequestered in agricultural soils with intensive fertilization, improved residue management, and the adoption of conservation tillage practices, the controls on accumulation dynamics as well as linkages between legacy N accumulation and water quality remain unclear. Here, we have used the process-based model CENTURY to quantify accumulation and depletion trajectories for soil N across a range of climate and soil types characteristic of the MRB. The model was calibrated against crop yield data and soil N accumulation data from a long-term field site. Model runs highlighted that under current management scenarios, N accumulation is greatest in regions with the highest crop yield, and this can be attributed to the higher residue rates with greater yields. We thus find that humans, through management practices, have homogenized spatial patterns of SON across the landscape by increasing SON magnitudes in warmer and drier regions. Results also suggest a regime shift in the relationship between soil organic N and N mineralization fluxes, such that N fluxes are greater now than in the 1930s, despite similar soil organic N magnitudes, mainly due to higher proportions of labile, unprotected soil organic matter. This regime shift leads to elevated N leaching to tiles and groundwater in landscapes under intensive agriculture.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number035006
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 1 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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