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Total nitrogen inflow and outflow from a large river swamp basin to the Gulf of Mexico

Hydrological sciences journal 2006 v.51 no.3 pp. 531-542
autumn, basins, freshwater, lakes, nitrates, nitrite nitrogen, organic nitrogen, river flow, rivers, summer, swamps, total Kjeldahl nitrogen, water quality, Gulf of Mexico, Mississippi River, North America
River corridor wetland restoration and freshwater diversion from the lower Mississippi River are being considered as two major options to reduce nitrogen input to the Gulf of Mexico. However, it is largely uncertain how much nitrogen can actually be retained from the overflowing waters by these wetland systems. This study quantified the nitrogen inflow and outflow for the largest distributary basin of the Mississippi River, the Atchafalaya River Swamp basin. The goal of the study was to seek answers to three critical questions: (a) Does the Atchafalaya River Swamp remove a significant amount of nitrogen from the overflowing water, or is it releasing more nitrogen into the Gulf? (b) How do the nitrogen removal or release rates fluctuate seasonally and annually? (c) What are the relationships between the nitrogen removal capacity and the hydrological conditions in the basin such as river stage and discharge? By utilizing the long-term (1978–2002) river discharge and water quality data, monthly and annual nitrogen fluxes were quantified, and their relationships with the basin hydrological conditions investigated. A total nitrogen—sum of the total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN) and nitrate plus nitrite nitrogen (NO3+NO2)—mass input—output balance between the upstream (Simmesport) and downstream (Morgan City and Wax Lake Outlet) locations was established to examine the nitrogen removal potential for this, the largest freshwater swamp basin in North America. The results from this study showed that, over the past 25 years, the Atchafalaya River Swamp basin acted as a source for NO3+NO2 nitrogen, although the average annual output of NO3+NO2 nitrogen (174 584 Mg) was only slightly higher (2.3%) than the average annual input of NO3+NO2 nitrogen (170 721 Mg). The higher NO3+NO2 mass outflow occurred throughout summer and autumn, indicating an active role of biological processes on nitrogen in the overflowing waters of the Atchafalaya. However, this swamp basin has served as a major sink for organic nitrogen: the annual averages of TKN mass input and output were 200 323 and 145 917 Mg year−1, respectively, presenting a 27.2% removal rate by the basin. This large TKN reduction appeared high during springs and low during late summers, corresponding with the fluctuation of the hydrological conditions of the river.