Denitrification capacity in a subterranean estuary below a Rhode Island fringing salt marsh

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Coastal waters are severely threatened by nitrogen (N) loading from direct groundwater discharge. The subterranean estuary, the mixing zone of fresh groundwater and sea water in a coastal aquifer, has a high potential to remove substantial N. A network of piezometers was used to characterize the denitrification capacity and groundwater flow paths in the subterranean estuary below a Rhode Island fringing salt marsh. 15N-enriched nitrate was injected into the subterranean estuary (in situ push-pull method) to evaluate the denitrification capacity of the saturated zone at multiple depths (125-300 cm) below different zones (upland-marsh transition zone, high marsh, and low marsh). From the upland to low marsh, the water table became shallower, groundwater dissolved oxygen decreased, and groundwater pH, soil organic carbon, and total root biomass increased. As groundwater approached the high and low marsh, the hydraulic gradient increased and deep groundwater upwelled. In the warm season (groundwater temperature >12°C), elevated groundwater denitrification capacity within each zone was observed. The warm season low marsh groundwater denitrification capacity was significantly higher than all other zones and depths. In the cool season (groundwater temperature <10.5°C), elevated groundwater denitrification capacity was only found in the low marsh. Additions of dissolved organic carbon did not alter groundwater denitrification capacity suggesting that an alternative electron donor, possibly transported by tidal inundation from the root zone, may be limiting. Combining flow paths with denitrification capacity and saturated porewater residence time, we estimated that as much as 29-60 mg N could be removed from 11 of water flowing through the subterranean estuary below the low marsh, arguing for the significance of subterranean estuaries in annual watershed scale N budgets. © 2005 Estuarine Research Federation.

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