Nitrate concentrations in river waters of the upper Thames and its tributaries

Neal, Colin; Jarvie, Helen; Neal, Margaret; Hill, Linda; Wickham, Heather. 2006 Nitrate concentrations in river waters of the upper Thames and its tributaries. Science of the Total Environment, 365. 15-32.

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The spatial and temporal patterns of in-stream nitrate concentrations for the upper Thames and selected tributaries are described in relation to point and diffuse sources for these rural catchments. The rivers associated with catchments dominated by permeable (Cretaceous Chalk) bedrock show a smaller range in nitrate concentrations than those associated with clay and mixed sedimentary bedrock of lower permeability. The differences reflect the contrasting nature of water storage within the catchments and the influence of point and diffuse sources of nitrate. Nitrate concentrations often increase in a gradual way as a function of flow for the rivers draining the permeable catchments, although there is usually a minor dip in nitrate concentrations at low to intermediate flow due to (1) within-river uptake of nitrate during the spring and the summer when biological activity is particularly high and (2) a seasonal fall in the water table and a change in preferential flow-pathway in the Chalk. There is also a decrease in the average nitrate concentration downstream for the Kennet where average concentrations decrease from around 35 to 25 mg NO3 l− 1. For the lower permeability catchments, when point source inputs are not of major significance, nitrate concentrations in the rivers increase strongly with increasing flow and level off and in some cases then decline at higher flows. When point source inputs are important, the initial increase in nitrate concentrations do not always occur and there can even be an initial dilution, since the dilution of point sources of nitrate will be lowest under low-flow conditions. For the only two tributaries of the Thames which we have monitored for over 5 years (the Pang and the Kennet), nitrate concentrations have increased over time. For the main stem of the Thames, which was also monitored for over 5 years, there is no clear increase over time. As the Pang and the Kennet river water is mainly supplied from the Chalk, the increasing nitrate concentrations over time clearly reflect increasing nitrate concentrations within the groundwater. It primarily reflects long-term trends for agricultural fertilizer inputs and significant aquifer storage and long water residence times. The results are discussed in terms of hydrogeochemical processes and the Water Framework Directive and are compared with data from other eastern UK rivers. The importance of diffuse sources of nitrate contamination is highlighted. On a flow weighted basis, the average diffuse component of nitrate is around 95% for the Thames Basin rivers draining Chalk and for the corresponding rivers draining less permeable strata, there is a more significant but not major point source component (at least in terms of flux); the average diffuse component is 79% in this case. These data fit well with earlier assessments of agricultural sources to UK surface waters. Under baseflow conditions the diffuse sources remain dominant for the Chalk fed Thames Basin rivers, but point sources can be dominant for the low permeability cases. On a proportionate basis, the Thames Basin rivers are similar to the rural rivers of the Tweed and Humber Basins in terms of percentage diffuse components although the lower intensity agriculture occurring for the rivers monitored means that the average nitrate concentrations are lower for the rural rivers of central and northern England and the borders with Scotland: the Humber and Tweed.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
Programmes: CEH Programmes pre-2009 publications > Water
UKCEH and CEH Sections/Science Areas: _ Water Quality
ISSN: 0048-9697
Additional Keywords: Nitrate; RELU, River, Chalk, Aquifer, Cherwell, Dun, Kennet, Lambourn, LOCAR, LOIS, Pang, Ray, Thame, Thames, Water Framework Directive
NORA Subject Terms: Hydrology
Date made live: 25 Jun 2007 15:23 +0 (UTC)

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