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Simulating Nitrate Leaching Profiles in a Highly Permeable Vadose Zone

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Abstract

An approach is developed to simulate leaching of a dissolved chemical constituent in the vadose zone of an aquifer. Specifically, nitrate loading at the water table for different water table depths, for a range of aquifer permeability values, and for different cases of heterogeneity of the aquifer, are considered. Models from the literature are first used to derive soil–water characteristic curves (water retention and hydraulic conductivity) from a grain size distribution curve for unsaturated conditions. Given infiltration from the surface, the initial conditions for the chemical concentration, and the water content profile, leaching of the chemical in the vadose zone is simulated as a function of both time and depth. The methodology is illustrated for a permeable aquifer. Simulations are undertaken using a finite element code for saturated and unsaturated flow. Different scenarios are simulated depending on the heterogeneity of the aquifer and the depth of the water table. Modeling results show that in the example case studied, nitrate concentration loading at the water table does not depend strongly on the position of the water table, but rather on the material properties of the aquifer. The contribution of this endeavor resides in the methodology which allows a prediction of nitrate leaching using only the grain size property of the aquifer. It allows practitioners to obtain a first assessment of leaching with limited data.

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Acknowledgments

The authors wish to acknowledge the financial contribution by Environment Canada. Basil Hii from Environment Canada provided the well samples that were used for determining the grain size distribution curves for the aquifer media. Dr. Doug Stead (Simon Fraser University) provided access to equipment for conducting the sieves analyses. Gwyn Graham (BC Ministry of Environment) and Kim Sutherland (BC Ministry of Agriculture and Food) are also acknowledged for contributing local insight.

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Correspondence to R. Chesnaux.

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Chesnaux, R., Allen, D.M. Simulating Nitrate Leaching Profiles in a Highly Permeable Vadose Zone. Environ Model Assess 13, 527–539 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10666-007-9116-4

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Keywords

  • Nitrate leaching
  • Vadose zone
  • Abbotsford-Sumas aquifer
  • Unsaturated flow
  • Infiltration front
  • Characteristic curves