The nitrate time bomb : a numerical way to investigate nitrate storage and lag time in the unsaturated zone

Wang, L.; Butcher, A.S.; Stuart, M.E.; Gooddy, D.C.; Bloomfield, J.P. ORCID: 2013 The nitrate time bomb : a numerical way to investigate nitrate storage and lag time in the unsaturated zone. Environmental Geochemistry and Health, 35 (5). 667-681.

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Nitrate pollution in groundwater, which is mainly from agricultural activities, remains an international problem. It threatens the environment, economics and human health. There is a rising trend in nitrate concentrations in many UK groundwater bodies. Research has shown it can take decades for leached nitrate from the soil to discharge into groundwater and surface water due to the ‘store’ of nitrate and its potentially long travel time in the unsaturated and saturated zones. However, this time lag is rarely considered in current water nitrate management and policy development. The aim of this study was to develop a catchment-scale integrated numerical method to investigate the nitrate lag time in the groundwater system, and the Eden Valley, UK, was selected as a case study area. The method involves three models, namely the nitrate time bomb—a process-based model to simulate the nitrate transport in the unsaturated zone (USZ), GISGroundwater—a GISGroundwater flow model, and N-FM—a model to simulate the nitrate transport in the saturated zone. This study answers the scientific questions of when the nitrate currently in the groundwater was loaded into the unsaturated zones and eventually reached the water table; is the rising groundwater nitrate concentration in the study area caused by historic nitrate load; what caused the uneven distribution of groundwater nitrate concentration in the study area; and whether the historic peak nitrate loading has reached the water table in the area. The groundwater nitrate in the area was mainly from the 1980s to 2000s, whilst the groundwater nitrate in most of the source protection zones leached into the system during 1940s–1970s; the large and spatially variable thickness of the USZ is one of the major reasons for unevenly distributed groundwater nitrate concentrations in the study area; the peak nitrate loading around 1983 has affected most of the study area. For areas around the Bowscar, Beacon Edge, Low Plains, Nord Vue, Dale Springs, Gamblesby, Bankwood Springs, and Cliburn, the peak nitrate loading will arrive at the water table in the next 34 years; statistical analysis shows that 8.7 % of the Penrith Sandstone and 7.3 % of the St Bees Sandstone have not been affected by peak nitrate. This research can improve the scientific understanding of nitrate processes in the groundwater system and support the effective management of groundwater nitrate pollution for the study area. With a limited number of parameters, the method and models developed in this study are readily transferable to other areas.

Item Type: Publication - Article
Digital Object Identifier (DOI):
ISSN: 0269-4042
Additional Keywords: GroundwaterBGS, Groundwater, Diffuse pollution, Groundwater quality
NORA Subject Terms: Hydrology
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Date made live: 23 Jul 2013 14:05 +0 (UTC)

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