Nitrogen removal performance is reported for constructed wetlands treating subsurface drainage from irrigated and rain-fed dairy pastures in North Island, New Zealand. Flow-proportional sampling of inflow and outflow concentrations were combined with continuous flow records to calculate mass balances for the wetlands. Drainage flows from the irrigated catchment were 2.5–4 fold higher and N exports up to 5 fold higher per unit area than for the rain-fed catchment. Hydraulic and associated N loadings to the wetlands were highly pulsed, associated with rainfall, soil water status, and irrigation events. Transient pulses of organic nitrogen were an important form of N loss from the rain-fed landscape in the first year, and were very effectively removed in the wetland (>90%). Median nitrate concentrations of ∼10 g m−3 in the drainage inflows were reduced by 15–67% during passage through the wetlands and annual nitrate-N loads by 16–61% (38–317 g N m−2 y−1). Generation in the wetlands of net ammoniacal-N and organic-N (irrigated site) partially negated reduction in nitrate-N loads. The results show that constructed wetlands comprising 1–2% of catchment area can provide moderate reductions in TN export via pastoral drainage, but performance is markedly influenced by variations in seasonal loading and establishment/maturation factors.

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