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Rapid denitrification of nitrate-contaminated groundwater in a low-gradient blackwater stream valley...

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Leaching of excess nitrogen (N) to groundwater in fertilized landscapes can overwhelm natural biogeochemical processes and cause long-term eutrophication of aquatic systems. We investigated N fate and transport from an intensively managed short-rotation woody crop (Pinus taeda) plantation through the riparian zone of an intermittent, low-gradient blackwater stream. Fertilization of the P. taeda plantation on the uplands resulted in contamination of groundwater with nitrate concentrations between 0.9 and 1.9 mg N L−1. No corresponding increase in nitrate was observed in stream water or shallow groundwater in the riparian zone. Groundwater travel-time modeling predicted that N from near-stream, upland plantation areas should have reached streams during the monitoring period. Two years of measuring N species in well water in contrasting landscape positions (within the plantation, swale, riparian edge, forested hillslope, and valley), indicated rapid nitrate transformation and denitrification within the forested wetland valleys. Denitrification in the shallow groundwater system within the toeslopes and the riparian zone was estimated to have removed > 90% of nitrate. These results highlight the importance of riparian zones as pathways for the removal of N and for controlling downstream N loads.