Large amounts of nitrogen are stored in the soils of agricultural areas in Nebraska and Maryland, according to a new study by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Once in the soil, nitrogen can be converted to nitrate, which can readily move to ground water.
"We expected to find nitrogen stored in organic matter
in these soils, but didn't realize how much," says Tom Nolan, USGS
hydrologist, who led the study. "If mobilized, the large reservoirs of
nitrogen could significantly impact water quality."
Nitrogen occurs in soil, plants and ground water, and it is
difficult to account for all of the various forms it can take. For this study,
scientists at the USGS National Water Quality Assessment Program and the USDA
Agricultural Research Service used a new version of the Root Zone Water Quality
Model to estimate unsaturated zone nitrogen mass balances at four agricultural
fields. The study was reported in the May/June 2010 edition of the Journal of
The mass balances were expected to reveal the predominant
forms of nitrogen in important agricultural settings. The four sites had variable
climate, soils and management practices, and included an almond orchard in
central California; a cornfield about 0.6
kilometers from the almond orchard; a corn-soybean crop rotation in eastern Nebraska, and a corn-soybean rotation in eastern Maryland.
The model predicted that large amounts of organic nitrogen
are stored in the soil beneath fields in Nebraska
on which corn and soybean crops are grown. The model also showed that nitrogen
came primarily from inorganic fertilizer or from nitrogen fixation by soybeans,
and that most nitrogen was removed from the soil through uptake by crops. After
crop uptake, leaching accounted for most of the nitrogen lost from the soil,
particularly in irrigated areas of California.
Denitrification, a process where nitrogen is removed from the soil when it is
converted to its gaseous phase, occurred only sporadically at the four sites
because soils generally were sandy and well-drained.
The work is novel in that the model was auto-calibrated to measured
data comprising soil moisture, soil water tension, bromide and nitrate
concentrations, and soil organic matter. Also, previous versions of the model
were limited to the rooting depth of plants (typically 9 feet or less). The new
version of the model can make predictions down to approximately 100 feet,
enabling estimation of water-quality effects well beyond the root zone. More
study is needed to better understand the conditions required to mobilize and
transport the stored nitrogen to ground water.
Large Amounts of Nitrogen Stored Beneath Selected Agricultural Areas
May 7, 2010