In situ ground water denitrification in stratified, permeable soils underlying riparian wetlands

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The ground water denitrification capacity of riparian zones in deep soils, where substantial ground water can flow through low-gradient stratified sediments, may affect watershed nitrogen export. We hypothesized that the vertical pattern of ground water denitrification in riparian hydric soils varies with geomorphic setting and follows expected subsurface carbon distribution (i.e., abrupt decline with depth in glacial outwash vs. negligible decline with depth in alluvium). We measured in situ ground water denitrification rates at three depths (65, 150, and 300 cm) within hydric soils at four riparian sites (two per setting) using a 15N-enriched nitrate "push-pull" method. No significant difference was found in the pattern and magnitude of denitrification when grouping sites by setting. At three sites there was no significant difference in denitrification among depths. Correlations of site characteristics with denitrification varied with depth. At 65 cm, ground water denitrification correlated with variables associated with the surface ecosystem (temperature, dissolved organic carbon). At deeper depths, rates were significantly higher closer to the stream where the subsoil often contains organically enriched deposits that indicate fluvial geomorphic processes. Mean rates ranged from 30 to 120 μg N kg-1 d-1 within 10 m versus <1 to 40 μg N kg-1 d-1 at >30 m from the stream. High denitrification rates observed in hydric soils, down to 3 m within 10 m of the stream in both alluvial and glacial outwash settings, argue for the importance of both settings in evaluating the significance of riparian wetlands in catchment-scale N dynamics.

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Journal of Environmental Quality