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Hedgerows reduce nitrate flux at hillslope and catchment scales via root uptake and secondary effects

Journal of Contaminant Hydrology


Agricultural contamination of groundwater with nitrate (NO3-) is one of the most widespread and pressing environmental issues. The preservation and planting of hedgerows around agricultural fields can reduce NO3- flux, but the efficacy of hedgerows depends on the amount of NO3- in soil and groundwater, hydrological flowpath and timing, and biogeochemical conditions surrounding and below roots. Quantifying these parameters is a major challenge, usually requiring involved and destructive fieldwork. Here, we present a new analytical method to characterize NO3- stratification using water chemistry sampled during piezometer slug tests. We tested this method with a network of wells in a hillslope intersected by an oak hedgerow during high- and low-water conditions, respectively spring and autumn. We found that hedgerows had a strong seasonal effect on near-surface NO3- dynamics in the proximity of the root system, reducing annual hillslope-level fluxes by 26 to 63%, comparable to NO3- removal from cover crop techniques. Hedgerow root uptake accounted for two-thirds of this reduction, with the remaining third attributable to secondary effects, potentially hedgerow-induced microbial retention or denitrification due to increased organic carbon and heterogeneous redox conditions in the rooting zone. However, a simple scaling exercise suggested that at the catchment level, hedgerow NO3- removal has a smaller effect (ca 1-10% reduction of annual flux), due to the large legacy of NO3- in the aquifer from past fertilizer application. These results suggest that while hedgerows cannot immediately solve problems of past groundwater contamination, protection and reestablishment of hedgerow networks could substantially accelerate recovery of groundwater quality on decadal timescales.

Author(s): Thomas, Z; Abbott, BW

Journal: Journal of Contaminant Hydrology

Year: 2018