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Volume 1 (2001), Pages 642-651
Research Article

Impact of a First-Order Riparian Zone on Nitrogen Removal and Export from an Agricultural Ecosystem

USDA-ARS Environmental Quality Lab, Beltsville, MD 20705, USA

Academic Editor: Joe Wisniewski

Copyright © 2001 J.T. Angier et al.


Riparian zones are reputed to be effective at preventing export of agricultural groundwater nitrogen (N) from local ecosystems. This is one impetus behind riparian zone regulations and initiatives. However, riparian zone function can vary under different conditions, with varying impacts on the regional (and ultimately global) environment. Rates of groundwater delivery to the surface appear to have significant effects on the N-removing capabilities of a riparian zone. Research conducted at a first-order agricultural watershed with a well-defined riparian zone in the Maryland coastal plain indicates that more than 2.5 kg/day of nitrate-N can be exported under moderate-to-high stream baseflow conditions. The total nitrate-N load that exits the system increases with increasing flow not simply because of the greater volume of water export. Stream water nitrate-N concentrations also increase by more than an order of magnitude as flow increases, at least during baseflow. This appears to be largely the result of changes in dominant groundwater delivery mechanisms. Higher rates of groundwater exfiltration lessen the contact time between nitrate-carrying groundwater and potentially reducing riparian soils. Subsurface preferential flow paths, in the wetland and adjacent field, also strongly influence N removal. Simple assumptions regarding riparian zone function may be inadequate because of complexities observed in response to changing hydrologic conditions.