Nitrogen Removal in Streams of Agricultural Catchments—A Literature Review

Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2007
AuthorsBirgand, F, R. Skaggs, W, Chescheir, GM, J. Gilliam, W
JournalCritical Reviews in Environmental Science and Technology
Pagination381 - 487
ISBN Number1064-3389

Excess nutrient loads have been recognized to be the major cause of serious water quality problems recently encountered in many estuaries and coastal waters of the world. Agriculture has been recognized in many regions of the world to be the largest single source of nitrogen emissions to the aquatic environments, and best management practices have been proposed to reduce nutrient losses at the field edge. As a result, there is growing awareness that nutrient management must be handled at the watershed scale. However, the key to nutrient management at the watershed scale is the understanding and quantification of the fate of nutrients both at the field scale and after they enter the aquatic environment. There has been widespread evidence since the late 1970s that nitrogen can be removed from water during its downstream transport in watersheds or basins. Although this information is becoming crucial, no overview has been proposed, so far, to qualitatively as well as quantitatively summarize available information in the literature. For this reason, we propose a review on the biogeochemical processes involved in nitrogen removal in streams, the rates of removal reported, and the factors influencing those rates. Nitrogen removal rates in agricultural streams should be expected to vary between 350 and 1250 mg N m-2 day-1. Mass transfer coefficients (coefficient evaluating intrinsic ability of a stream to remove nitrogen) values in agricultural streams may vary between 0.07 and 0.25 m day-1, although these values correspond to values obtained from reach scale studies. Reviewing values obtained from different measurement scales has revealed that results from incubations or experiments performed in the laboratory clearly underestimate mass transfer coefficients compared to those reported at the reach scale, from severalfold to more than one order of magnitude. Nitrogen removal rates and efficiency in streams are the highest in the summer, and this is critical for receiving ecosystems, which are most sensitive to external inputs at this period of the year. Removal efficiency is the lowest in winter in temperate climates due to high flow and loading combined with lowest removal rates. In-stream processes, on an annual basis, may remove at the watershed scale as much as 10 to 70% of the total N load to the drainage network.