Nitrate Sources and Transport in the Upper Illinois River Basin Evaluated with Stable Isotope Ratios and SWAT Modeling

Tuesday, 16 December 2014
Jiajia Lin, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, IL, United States, Yonas Demissie, Washington State University, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Richland, WA, United States, Eugene Yan, Argonne Natl Lab-Bldg 203, Argonne, IL, United States, John Karl Bohlke, USGS, Reston, VA, United States and Neil Colrick Sturchio, University of Delaware, Geological Sciences, Newark, DE, United States
Measurements of nitrate concentrations and δ15N and δ18O values in 450 surface-water samples from the Upper Illinois River Basin (UIRB) were combined with SWAT (Soil and Water Assessment Tool) modeling to study the influence of land use on nitrate sources, mixing, and transformation within the watershed. The samples were collected from the Illinois River and its tributaries, including effluent from Chicago’s largest wastewater treatment plant (WTP), October 2004 through October 2008. The isotopic and concentration measurements indicated that WTP effluent and agricultural drainage waters were the two principal nitrate endmembers within the UIRB. Isotopic compositions indicated the source of nitrate during the annual spring flushing event was mostly derived from agriculture. An apparent denitrification trend was identified from spring through fall in tributaries draining agricultural subbasins and those having mixed urban-agricultural land use. Mass balance indicated that the fraction of nitrate from the WTP effluent was as low as 5 % or less during the spring flush (March-May) and much larger during late summer and fall.

A SWAT model was constructed to evaluate effects of land use, fertilizer applications, and WTP point source discharge by coupling hydrologic processes with nutrient cycling and plant growth. The UIRB SWAT model was calibrated and validated with flow and nitrate measurements: the Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency (NSE) ranged from 0.60 to 0.83 and the determination coefficient (R2) ranged from 0.59 to 0.87. To explore the influence of fertilizer input on basin nitrate transport, the calibrated model was used to evaluate impacts of spring and fall fertilizer applications on stream nitrate loads. Simulations with a -50% change in the total fertilizer application rate (kg N/ha) resulted in as much as -42% change in basin nitrate export (kg N/month), while causing only -9% or less change in corn yield (kg N/ha). Decreased fertilizer application also led to reductions of annual basin N percolation rate below the root zone (kg N/ha) and nitrate loading to surface runoff (kg N/ha), causing changes as much as -32.2% and -15.6% respectively.

Combined modeling and isotopic studies can be useful for understanding nutrient mixing and transformation processes and for optimizing nutrient export reduction strategies.