, Volume 103, Issue 1, pp 91-107

First online:

Nitrate retention in a sand plains stream and the importance of groundwater discharge

  • Robert S. StelzerAffiliated withDepartment of Biology and Microbiology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh Email author 
  • , Damion R. DroverAffiliated withDepartment of Biology and Microbiology, University of Wisconsin OshkoshWarnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, University of Georgia
  • , Susan L. EggertAffiliated withUSDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station
  • , Maureen A. MuldoonAffiliated withDepartment of Geology, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh

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We measured net nitrate retention by mass balance in a 700-m upwelling reach of a third-order sand plains stream, Emmons Creek, from January 2007 to November 2008. Surface water and groundwater fluxes of nitrate were determined from continuous records of discharge and from nitrate concentrations based on weekly and biweekly sampling at three surface water stations and in 23 in-stream piezometers, respectively. Surface water nitrate concentration in Emmons Creek was relatively high (mean of 2.25 mg NO3–N l−1) and exhibited strong seasonal variation. Net nitrate retention averaged 429 mg NO3–N m−2 d−1 and about 2% of nitrate inputs to the reach. Net nitrate retention was highest during the spring and autumn when groundwater discharge was elevated. Groundwater discharge explained 57–65% of the variation in areal net nitrate retention. Specific discharge and groundwater nitrate concentration varied spatially. Weighting groundwater solute concentrations by specific discharge improved the water balance and resulted in higher estimates of nitrate retention. Our results suggest that groundwater inputs of nitrate can drive nitrate retention in streams with high groundwater discharge.


Focused discharge Groundwater Mass-balance Nitrogen Sediments