, Volume 99, Issue 1, pp 79-96

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Identifying sources of dissolved organic carbon in agriculturally dominated rivers using radiocarbon age dating: Sacramento–San Joaquin River Basin, California

  • James O. SickmanAffiliated withDepartment of Environmental Sciences, University of California Email author 
  • , Carol L. DiGiorgioAffiliated withOffice of Water Quality, California State Department of Water Resources
  • , M. Lee DavissonAffiliated withLawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • , Delores M. LuceroAffiliated withDepartment of Environmental Sciences, University of California
  • , Brian BergamaschiAffiliated withUnited States Geological Survey


We used radiocarbon measurements of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) to resolve sources of riverine carbon within agriculturally dominated landscapes in California. During 2003 and 2004, average Δ14C for DOC was −254‰ in agricultural drains in the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta, −218‰ in the San Joaquin River, −175‰ in the California State Water Project and −152‰ in the Sacramento River. The age of bulk DOC transiting the rivers of California’s Central Valley is the oldest reported for large rivers and suggests wide-spread loss of soil organic matter caused by agriculture and urbanization. Using DAX 8 adsorbent, we isolated and measured 14C concentrations in hydrophobic acid fractions (HPOA); river samples showed evidence of bomb-pulse carbon with average Δ14C of 91 and 76‰ for the San Joaquin and Sacramento Rivers, respectively, with older HPOA, −204‰, observed in agricultural drains. An operationally defined non-HPOA fraction of DOC was observed in the San Joaquin River with seasonally computed Δ14C values of between −275 and −687‰; the source of this aged material was hypothesized to be physically protected organic-matter in high clay-content soils and agrochemicals (i.e., radiocarbon-dead material) applied to farmlands. Mixing models suggest that the Sacramento River contributes about 50% of the DOC load in the California State Water Project, and agricultural drains contribute approximately one-third of the load. In contrast to studies showing stabilization of soil carbon pools within one or two decades following land conversion, sustained loss of soil organic matter, occurring many decades after the initial agricultural-land conversion, was observed in California’s Central Valley.


Rivers Dissolved organic carbon Radiocarbon Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta XAD resins