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Volume 1 (2001), Pages 155-162
Research Article

Surface and Subsurface Nitrate Flow Pathways on a Watershed Scale

USDA-ARS Hydrology and Remote Sensing laboratory, Beltsville, MD 20705, USA

Academic Editor: Joe Wisniewski

Copyright © 2001 C.S.T. Daughtry et al.


Determining the interaction and impact of surface runoff and subsurface flow processes on the environment has been hindered by our inability to characterize subsurface soil structures on a watershed scale. Ground penetrating radar (GPR) data were collected and evaluated in determining subsurface hydrology at four small watersheds in Beltsville, MD. The watersheds have similar textures, organic matter contents, and yield distributions. Although the surface slope was greater on one of the watersheds, slope alone could not explain why it also had a nitrate runoff flux that was 18 times greater than the other three watersheds. Only with knowledge of the subsurface hydrology could the surface runoff differences be explained. The subsurface hydrology was developed by combining GPR and surface topography in a geographic information system. Discrete subsurface flow pathways were identified and confirmed with color infrared imagery, real-time soil moisture monitoring, and yield monitoring. The discrete subsurface flow patterns were also useful in understanding observed nitrate levels entering the riparian wetland and first order stream. This study demonstrated the impact that subsurface stratigraphy can have on water and nitrate (NO3-N) fluxes exiting agricultural lands, even when soil properties, yield distributions, and climate are similar. Reliable protocols for measuring subsurface fluxes of water and chemicals need to be developed.