2004 Denver Annual Meeting (November 7–10, 2004)

Paper No. 5
Presentation Time: 9:20 AM


SIMPKINS, William W.1, PARKIN, Timothy B.2, JOHNSON, Beth L.3, HELMKE, Martin F.4, THOMPSON, Michael L.5, ISENHART, Thomas M.6 and SCHULTZ, Richard C.6, (1)Dept. of Geological and Atmospheric Sciences, Iowa State Univ, Ames, IA 50011, (2)USDA ARS-National Soil Tilth Lab, 2150 Pammel Drive, Ames, IA 50011, (3)Geomatrix, Inc, 14525 Hwy. 7, Suite 104, Minneapolis, MN 55343, (4)Versar, Inc, 6850 Versar Center, Springfield, VA 22151, (5)Agronomy Department, Iowa State Univ, Ames, IA 50011, (6)Dept. of Natural Resource Ecology and Management, Iowa State Univ, Ames, IA 50011, bsimp@iastate.edu

Row-crop and animal agricultural practices continue to cause significant degradation of water quality in the Midwest Corn Belt.  More than 1200 stream segments and lakes appear on the EPA list of impaired waters in the Upper Mississippi River Basin.  Nutrients exported from the region have been implicated in the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico.  In Iowa, 18 percent of private wells contains NO3-N above the 10 mg/L MCL.  Despite this gloomy picture, the problem could potentially be worse.  Research in Iowa during the past 15 years has shown that the surficial aquitard of northern and central Iowa, composed of late Wisconsin till (Dows Formation) and loess of the Peoria and Pisgah Formations, as well the underlying Mississippian aquifer, are “avenues” on the “redox-reaction highway.”  The aquitard contains up to 8 g C/kg and DOC concentrations up to 54 mg/L, causing depletion of electron acceptors to facilitate C oxidation.  As a result, large concentrations of methane (up to 2600 μmol/L) and dissolved Fe (up to 5 mg/L) begin at depths of about 4 m in the aquitard; dissolved O2, NO3-N, and SO4  are absent below that depth.  Above-ambient concentrations of N2O in groundwater (~ 0.5 μmol/L) at 4 m suggest that denitrification is removing NO3-N.  In the Walnut Creek watershed in central Iowa, NO3-N disappears below 3.5 m and coincides with concentration spikes in N2O and CH4.  In north-central Iowa, denitrification removes NO3-N from groundwater before it discharges into Clear Lake. Concentrations of CH4 and N2O reach 1600 and 0.2 μmol/L, respectively.  Where the aquitard is fractured, radial diffusion experiments suggest that NO3-N diffuses into an organic C-rich matrix and denitrifies.  In riparian buffer settings in alluvium, organic C from the aquitard may help drive denitrification in groundwater moving laterally to surface water.  Finally, both isotopic evidence and groundwater modeling suggest that organic C translocated from loess promotes identical redox conditions in the underlying Mississippian aquifer.  We conclude that even though widespread “leakage” of nitrogen occurs into surface water and groundwater as a result of agricultural activities, NO3-N contamination in the Midwest Corn Belt might be worse if not for the redox reactions driven by organic C derived from surficial aquitards.