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Nitrogen removal in subsurface water by narrow buffer strips in the intensive farming landscape of the Po River watershed, Italy

Balestrini, Raffaella, Arese, Cristina, Delconte, Carlo Andrea, Lotti, Alessandro, Salerno, Franco
Ecological engineering 2011 v.37 no.2 pp. 148-157
agricultural watersheds, alluvial plains, chemical speciation, denitrification, evapotranspiration, fertilizer application, groundwater, hydrochemistry, intensive farming, irrigation, landscapes, nitrates, nitrogen, nonpoint source pollution, nutrient content, oxygen, piezometers, riparian areas, riparian buffers, rivers, seasonal variation, spatial variation, subsurface flow, sustainable agriculture, trees, vegetation, water table, water uptake, Italy
In many countries buffer strips have become an important management tool widely accepted for controlling the diffuse pollution and supporting the development of more sustainable agriculture. However, there is the need to investigate their role in intensive farming systems where a realistic and shareable proposal to realize buffer strips can only foresee the use of a limited space. We evaluated the nitrogen buffering capacities of two narrow riparian strips (5–8m) along irrigation ditches located in a typical flat agricultural watershed of the alluvial plain of the River Po (Northern Italy). Subsurface water level and nutrient concentrations were monitored along transects of piezometers installed from crop fields to ditches in two different areas. Spatial and temporal variation in water chemistry and hydrology were investigated to individuate the main processes (biological or physical) leading to groundwater nitrate depletion related to fertilization, pluviometric regime and seasonal variation. The results obtained indicate an elevated nitrate removal efficiency in both riparian areas. Compared to the high mean concentrations measured at the exit of the crop fields (10–90mgl⁻¹N-NO₃ ⁻), nitrate levels within riparian sites can be very low, completely disappearing below the ditches. The patterns of some chemical species (O₂, SO₄ ²⁻ and HCO₃ ⁻) and the potential denitrification rates suggest that denitrification plays a predominant role in the N-NO₃ ⁻ depletion observed in the first few meters of the herbaceous strip. The key factors in the system are the elevated groundwater residence time and the effect of the evapotranspiration. The water uptake by woody vegetation affects the subsurface water to flow through the riparian zone and, at the same time, it contributes to completely remove the nitrate from the groundwater. Our findings also suggest the double role of riparian vegetation both in ecohydrological and biological terms. In fact the water uptake by trees affects the subsurface flow pattern and contributes to completely remove the nitrate in the riparian zone.