Geochemical conditions in groundwater systems: Implications for the attenuation of agricultural nitrate

T. Thayalakumaran, Keith Bristow, P.B. Charlesworth, T. Fass

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    Nitrate resulting from nitrogen fertilisers used in Agriculture is a widespread contaminant of shallow groundwater and causes adverse effects on human, animal and ecosystem health. In order to evaluate the full extent of groundwater nitrate contamination, and how it might evolve in time, it is essential to understand controls on aquifer assimilative capacity. This level of understanding will also help to better target policies and incentives aimed at controlling the amount of nitrate entering downstream water systems.The potential for nitrate attenuation in groundwater was assessed by examining the concentration and distribution pattern of electron donors such as dissolved organic carbon (DOC), ferrous iron, and redox indicators such as dissolved oxygen (DO) and Eh in 57 monitoring bores on the lower Burdekin coastal floodplain, one of Queensland's and Australia's premier irrigation districts. Nitrate concentrations ranged from 0.1 to 14.4 mg/L NO3-N but were mostly undetectable in bores close to the coast. Groundwater age dates suggest that while there are nitrate 'hot spots' in certain areas, some or most of the nitrate is being consumed on its way to the ocean. Low nitrate concentrations were coupled with high ferrous concentrations. The low DO concentrations (<2 mg/L) and high ferrous concentrations found in 55% of the bores indicate that redox conditions are suitable for nitrate attenuation by either denitrification or dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium. The reducing environment may be associated with the high DOC concentrations (up to 82 mg C/L) found in these groundwaters. Furthermore, high levels of ferrous iron found in the Ayr area combined with the wide spread geographical distribution of DOC indicate that these areas have a high potential for sustaining geochemical processes that reduces nitrate levels. The distribution of geochemical indicators also suggests that the shallower depths (<15 m) of the groundwater systems have morepotential for nitrate reduction than the deeper depths. The map identifying areas within the lower Burdekin with most potential for denitrification is a valuable first step in helping to understand and manage the fate of nitrate entering the groundwater.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)103-115
    Number of pages13
    JournalAgricultural Water Management
    Issue number2
    Publication statusPublished - 2008


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