06 May 2024
 | 06 May 2024
Status: this preprint is open for discussion.

Nitrate-nitrogen dynamics in response to forestry harvesting and climate variability: Four years of UV nitrate sensor data in a shallow, gravel aquifer

Ben Wilkins, Tom Johns, and Sarah Mager

Abstract. The leaching of inorganic nitrogen can adversely affect groundwater and hydrologically connected streams and rivers. Traditionally, these effects have been assessed using discrete water quality measurements. However, it is difficult to characterise the complex biogeochemical processes that control nitrate-nitrogen dynamics in groundwater using temporally sparse data. In this study, we installed a continuous UV nitrate sensor, downgradient of forestry land use in a shallow, gravel aquifer to understand nitrate-nitrogen dynamics in groundwater. We found that there were two mechanisms of nitrate-nitrogen pulses in groundwater from the upgradient forestry land use. The most prevalent were nutrient losses during winter months when plant uptake is lower. Outside of winter months, we observed a higher nitrate-nitrogen concentration (12 mg L-1) as a result of changing biogeochemical conditions after trees were harvested, compared to 5.9 mg L-1 when there was no harvesting. We used a novel hysteresis approach, comparing nitrate-nitrogen concentrations and groundwater levels after rainfall recharge to understand event scale variability. First flush events in winter had a larger average area (more hysteresis) of 0.65 compared to 0.35 (less hysteresis) for subsequent events. Peak concentrations occurred earlier in events during 2021 (wetter) compared to 2020 (dryer), highlighting slower drainage pathways in years with less recharge. Through this analysis we also found evidence that the mobilisation of nitrate-nitrogen shifted from rainfall recharge to rising groundwater levels after the surface supply was depleted from successive recharge events. Finally, the nitrate-nitrogen load analysis indicates that the leaching and export occurs in pulses, that discrete sampling cannot accurately characterise. For example, in 2021, over 80 percent of the exported load occurred during a quarter of the year and discharged when there were base flow conditions in the nearby Hurunui River. These findings have implications for forestry land management, the understanding of inorganic nitrogen dynamics in groundwater in response to rainfall recharge and can be applied to future climate projections where periods of drought and storm events are more frequent.

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Ben Wilkins, Tom Johns, and Sarah Mager

Status: open (until 01 Jul 2024)

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Ben Wilkins, Tom Johns, and Sarah Mager
Ben Wilkins, Tom Johns, and Sarah Mager


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Short summary
We measured nitrate-nitrogen concentrations using a continuous UV nitrate sensor over four years in a shallow, gravel aquifer. We observed pulses of nitrate-nitrogen in response to forestry harvesting during subsequent rainfall recharge. Our novel hysteresis analysis helped elucidate event scale nitrate-nitrogen dynamics, while integrating continuous data improved nitrate-nitrogen load estimates. This work provides new insights into the variability of nitrate-nitrogen in permeable aquifers.