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Ammonium-nitrate dynamics in the critical zone during single irrigation events with untreated sewage effluents

Hernández-Martínez, JejannyLucero, Prado, Blanca, Cayetano-Salazar, Mario, Bischoff, Wolf-Anno, Siebe, Christina
Journal of soils and sediments 2018 v.18 no.2 pp. 467-480
Avena sativa, Lolium rigidum, adsorption, agroecosystems, air pollution, ammonia, ammonium, ammonium nitrate, ammonium nitrogen, aquifers, chlorides, crops, denitrification, drinking water, fertilizers, forage, groundwater, irrigation, macropores, nitrate nitrogen, nitrification, nitrogen, oats, pH, rhizosphere, sewage effluent, soil pore water, soil solution, soil water content, tensiometers, vadose zone, volatilization, wells
PURPOSE: Previous studies in the Mezquital Valley evidenced that irrigation with untreated sewage effluent supplies two- to tenfold larger nitrogen doses to crops than common fertilizer recommendations. However, nitrate concentrations in the groundwater are only slightly above threshold concentrations for drinking water. To understand the N dynamics in this agroecosystem, we quantified nitrogen inputs, outputs, and transformations within the rooting zone and in the vadose zone down to the aquifer (i.e., in the critical zone). MATERIALS AND METHODS: Single irrigation events were monitored in three different fields cropped with either annual rye grass (Lolium rigidum) or oats (Avena sativa L.) harvested for fodder. For each irrigation event, the total amount of water entering and leaving the field was quantified with a flowmeter. Soil pore water was collected with either microsuction cups or observation wells and groundwater was sampled at two wells. All water samples were analyzed for total nitrogen (Nt), ammonium nitrogen (NH₄⁺–N), nitrate nitrogen (NO₃⁻–N), chloride (Cl⁻¹), and pH. Organic N was calculated as the difference between total N and inorganic N. The water tension and the soil water content were monitored before, during, and after the irrigation with tensiometers and TDR probes, respectively, installed at different depths and at three sites within each field. Batch experiments were conducted to assess the NH₄⁺ adsorption capacity of the soils. RESULTS AND DISCUSSION: The irrigations added 537 to 727 kg ha⁻¹ N in form of organic N (40 %) and NH₄⁺–N (60 %) to the fields. Crops absorbed 65 % of the N and 31 to 66 kg NO₃⁻–N ha⁻¹ leached out beyond the rooting zone (>40 to 130 cm). Batch experiments evidenced an ammonium adsorption capacity of 43 and 53 % of the input ammonium mass. Nitrification dominated over denitrification as the water infiltrated through the soil, evidenced by changes in nitrate concentrations and pH values in the soil pore water. The behavior of the total N/Cl ratio with depth indicated possible N losses due to NH₃ volatilization at the field surface, a temporal withdrawal of N from the soil solution due to NH₄⁺–N adsorption in the rooting zone, as well as probable denitrification losses in the vadose zone. CONCLUSIONS: Although the studied agroecosystem muses the large N inputs relative efficiently, between 7 and 10 % of the added N with each irrigation leaches beyond the crop root zone as nitrate. This is triggered by overflow irrigation, since up to 8,699,000 L of water with N concentrations of up to 50 mg total N L⁻¹ infiltrate rapidly through macropores beyond the rooting zone. Additionally, ammonia volatilization and denitrification seem to be occurring. The latter could provide a self-cleaning potential to the system, if it reaches N₂ and needs further verification. Nevertheless, N inputs to the system should match crop uptake to avoid groundwater and atmospheric pollution.