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Spatial and temporal variability in discharge and nitrate in Iowa subsurface drains

  • Coupe, Richard H.1
  • Thornburg, Jonathon D.2, 3
  • Smith, Erik A.4
  • Capel, Paul D.5
  • 1 1 , Pearl (United States)
  • 2 University of Minnesota, 1985 Buford Ave, St. Paul, MN, 55108, USA , St. Paul (United States)
  • 3 NOAA, National Weather Service, 1733 Lake Drive West, Chanhassen, MN, 55317, USA , Chanhassen (United States)
  • 4 U.S. Geological Survey, 1451 Green Rd, Ann Arbor, MI, 48105, USA , Ann Arbor (United States)
  • 5 University of Minnesota, 500 Pillsbury Drive S.E, Minneapolis, MN, 55455, USA , Minneapolis (United States)
Published Article
Environmental Monitoring and Assessment
Publication Date
Oct 08, 2020
DOI: 10.1007/s10661-020-08636-0
Springer Nature


Agricultural subsurface drainage can be an important conduit of nitrate from agricultural fields to streams. This study focused on understanding the variability in nitrate concentrations and loads, exported by subsurface drains, into a small, north-central Iowa stream. Ninety-three subsurface drains in this watershed were sampled up to 5 times between 2006 and 2008. Additionally, 2 subsurface drains and the stream draining the study area (South Fork Iowa River near Blairsburg, IA, USA) were sampled frequently during the growing seasons in 2007 and 2008. Spatial variability analysis revealed no distinct spatial pattern in nitrate concentrations. The median nitrate concentrations were not significantly different when the drain outlets were characterized by diameter (17–23 cm, 27–48 cm, 60–108 cm). The eight large subsurface drains (part of the public drainage network) had less variability in nitrate concentration than the smaller drain sizes and generally contributed 70–87% of the total water and nitrate loads exported by subsurface drains to the stream. During high-discharge events, the medium-sized (27–48 cm) subsurface drains discharging to the stream became more important by contributing a higher discharge and nitrate load. The temporal variability examined in this study found that discharge and nitrate loads were influenced by the amount of precipitation that had occurred over the previous months. This paper demonstrates the spatial and within-season homogeneity of nitrate delivery to a stream from an intensely agricultural landscape that has subsurface drainage.

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