Saturday, January 31, 2009

Reducing nitrate runoff to downstream ecosystems

Science Daily: Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists are finding ways to stem the flow of nitrates that are washed out of crop fields into regional surface and groundwater sources. These nitrates come primarily from nitrogen fertilizers that are not taken up by crops. After the nitrates are flushed out of the soil, they flow into subsurface tile drains that channel excess water away from crop fields.

But these underground drains can facilitate the eventual passage of nitrate-laden runoff into the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay and other water bodies. When the runoff enters these areas, it can intensify the development of oxygen-deficient "dead zones," a condition called hypoxia.

ARS research leader Patrick Hunt, agricultural engineer Kenneth Stone, and soil scientist Matias Vanotti developed a process for denitrifying nitrate-laden runoff in subsurface drains before the runoff reaches sensitive aquatic ecosystems downstream. They cultured and encapsulated denitrifying bacteria in polymer gels and verified their denitrification rates. The resulting product was called "immobilized denitrification sludge," or IDS.

…The team concluded that the daily nitrate removal rate of a one-cubic-meter bioreactor would be approximately 94 grams per square meter of nitrate from field runoff. This is significantly higher than removal rates reported for in-stream wetlands, treatment wetlands, or wood-based bioreactors….

The general form of a drainage basin, in an image created by Benjamin D. Esham for the Wikimedia Commons

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