During the last two decades there has been growing interest in the capacity of riparian buffer zones to remove nitrate from ground waters moving through them. Riparian zone sediments often contain organic carbon, which favors formation of reducing conditions that can lead to removal of nitrate through denitrification. Over the past decade the National Water Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program has investigated the transport and fate of nitrate in ground and surface waters in study areas across the United States. In these studies riparian zone efficiency in removing nitrate varied widely as a result of variations in hydrogeologic factors. These factors include (1) denitrification in the up-gradient aquifer due to the presence of organic carbon or other electron donors, (2) long residence times (>50 years) along ground-water flow paths allowing even slow reactions to completely remove nitrate, (3) dilution of nitrate enriched waters with older water having little nitrate, (4) bypassing of riparian zones due to extensive use of drains and ditches, and (5) movement of ground water along deep flow paths below reducing zones. By developing a better understanding of the hydrogeologic settings in which riparian buffer zones are likely to be inefficient we can develop improved nutrient management plans.

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