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Title: Where the past meets the present: connecting nitrogen from watersheds to streams through groundwater flowpaths

Groundwater discharge to streams is a nonpoint source of nitrogen (N) that confounds N mitigation efforts and represents a significant portion of the annual N loading to watersheds. However, we lack an understanding of where and how much groundwater N enters streams and watersheds. Nitrogen concentrations at the end of groundwater flowpaths are the culmination of biogeochemical and physical processes from the contributing land area where groundwater recharges, within the aquifer system, and in the near-stream riparian area where groundwater discharges to streams. Our research objectives were to quantify the spatial distribution of N concentrations at groundwater discharges throughout a mixed land-use watershed and to evaluate how relationships among contributing and riparian land cover, modeled aquifer characteristics, and groundwater discharge biogeochemistry explain the spatial variation in groundwater discharge N concentrations. We accomplished this by integrating high-resolution thermal infrared surveys to locate groundwater discharge, biogeochemical sampling of groundwater, and a particle tracking model that links groundwater discharge locations to their contributing area land cover. Groundwater N loading from groundwater discharges within the watershed varied substantially between and within streambank groundwater discharge features. Groundwater nitrate concentrations were spatially heterogeneous ranging from below 0.03–11.45 mg-N/L, varying up to 20-fold within meters. When combined with the particle tracking model results and land cover metrics, we found that groundwater discharge nitrate concentrations were best predicted by a linear mixed-effect model that explained over 60% of the variation in nitrate concentrations, including aquifer chemistry (dissolved oxygen, Cl, SO42−), riparian area forested land cover, and modeled physical aquifer characteristics (discharge, Euclidean distance). Our work highlights the significant spatial variability in groundwater discharge nitrate concentrations within mixed land-use watersheds and the need to understand groundwater N processing across the many spatiotemporal scales within groundwater cycling.

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Environmental Research Letters
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National Science Foundation
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Corn also received N fertilizer around the time of planting and in mid-June at typical rates for the region (Table 1). No P fertilizer was applied to the perennial grassland or poplar systems (Table 1). All perennial grasses (except restored prairie) were provided 56 kg N ha−1 year−1 of N fertilizer in early summer between 2010 and 2016; an additional 77 kg N ha−1 was applied to miscanthus in 2009. Poplar was fertilized once with 157 kg N ha−1 in 2010 after the canopy had closed. Sampling of subsurface soil water and soil for P determination Subsurface soil water samples were collected beneath the root zone (1.2 m depth) using samplers installed at approximately 20 cm into the unconsolidated sand of 2Bt2 and 2E/Bt horizons (soils at the site are described in Crum and Collins54). Soil water was collected from two kinds of samplers: Prenart samplers constructed of Teflon and silica ( in replicate blocks 1 and 2 and Eijkelkamp ceramic samplers ( in blocks 3 and 4 (Supplementary Fig. S1). 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Sampling of water samples from lakes, streams and wells for P determination In addition to chemistry of soil and subsurface soil water in the BCSE, waters from lakes, streams, and residential water supply wells were also sampled during 2009–2016 for TDP analysis using Supor 450 membrane filters and the same analytical method as for soil water. These water bodies are within 15 km of the study site, within a landscape mosaic of row crops, grasslands, deciduous forest, and wetlands, with some residential development (Supplementary Fig. S2, Supplementary Table S2). Details of land use and cover change in the vicinity of KBS are given in Hamilton et al.48, and patterns in nutrient concentrations in local surface waters are further discussed in Hamilton62. Leaching estimates, modeled drainage, and data analysis Leaching was estimated at daily time steps and summarized as total leaching on a crop-year basis, defined from the date of planting or leaf emergence in a given year to the day prior to planting or emergence in the following year. TDP concentrations (mg L−1) of subsurface soil water were linearly interpolated between sampling dates during non-freezing periods (April–November) and over non-sampling periods (December–March) based on the preceding November and subsequent April samples. Daily rates of TDP leaching (kg ha−1) were calculated by multiplying concentration (mg L−1) by drainage rates (m3 ha−1 day−1) modeled by the Systems Approach for Land Use Sustainability (SALUS) model, a crop growth model that is well calibrated for KBS soil and environmental conditions. SALUS simulates yield and environmental outcomes in response to weather, soil, management (planting dates, plant population, irrigation, N fertilizer application, and tillage), and genetics63. The SALUS water balance sub-model simulates surface runoff, saturated and unsaturated water flow, drainage, root water uptake, and evapotranspiration during growing and non-growing seasons63. The SALUS model has been used in studies of evapotranspiration48,51,64 and nutrient leaching20,65,66,67 from KBS soils, and its predictions of growing-season evapotranspiration are consistent with independent measurements based on growing-season soil water drawdown53 and evapotranspiration measured by eddy covariance68. Phosphorus leaching was assumed insignificant on days when SALUS predicted no drainage. Volume-weighted mean TDP concentrations in leachate for each crop-year and for the entire 7-year study period were calculated as the total dissolved P leaching flux (kg ha−1) divided by the total drainage (m3 ha−1). One-way ANOVA with time (crop-year) as the fixed factor was conducted to compare total annual drainage rates, P leaching rates, volume-weighted mean TDP concentrations, and maximum aboveground biomass among the cropping systems over all seven crop-years as well as with TDP concentrations from local lakes, streams, and groundwater wells. When a significant (α = 0.05) difference was detected among the groups, we used the Tukey honest significant difference (HSD) post-hoc test to make pairwise comparisons among the groups. In the case of maximum aboveground biomass, we used the Tukey–Kramer method to make pairwise comparisons among the groups because the absence of poplar data after the 2013 harvest resulted in unequal sample sizes. We also used the Tukey–Kramer method to compare the frequency distributions of TDP concentrations in all of the soil leachate samples with concentrations in lakes, streams, and groundwater wells, since each sample category had very different numbers of measurements. Individual spreadsheets in “data table_leaching_dissolved organic carbon and nitrogen.xls” 1.    annual precip_drainage 2.    biomass_corn, perennial grasses 3.    biomass_poplar 4.    annual N leaching _vol-wtd conc 5.    Summary_N leached 6.    annual DOC leachin_vol-wtd conc 7.    growing season length 8.    correlation_nh4 VS no3 9.    correlations_don VS no3_doc VS don Each spreadsheet is described below along with an explanation of variates. Note that ‘nan’ indicate data are missing or not available. First row indicates header; second row indicates units 1. Spreadsheet: annual precip_drainage Description: Precipitation measured from nearby Kellogg Biological Station (KBS) Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Weather station, over 2009-2016 study period. Data shown in Figure 1; original data source for precipitation ( Drainage estimated from SALUS crop model. Note that drainage is percolation out of the root zone (0-125 cm). Annual precipitation and drainage values shown here are calculated for growing and non-growing crop periods. Variate    Description year    year of the observation crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” precip_G    precipitation during growing period (milliMeter) precip_NG    precipitation during non-growing period (milliMeter) drainage_G    drainage during growing period (milliMeter) drainage_NG    drainage during non-growing period (milliMeter)      2. Spreadsheet: biomass_corn, perennial grasses Description: Maximum aboveground biomass measurements from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass and restored prairie plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2015. Data shown in Figure 2.   Variate    Description year    year of the observation date    day of the observation (mm/dd/yyyy) crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 station    stations (S1, S2 and S3) of samplings within the plot. For more details, refer to link ( species    plant species that are rooted within the quadrat during the time of maximum biomass harvest. See protocol for more information, refer to link ( For maize biomass, grain and whole biomass reported in the paper (weed biomass or surface litter are excluded). Surface litter biomass not included in any crops; weed biomass not included in switchgrass and miscanthus, but included in grass mixture and prairie. fraction    Fraction of biomass biomass_plot    biomass per plot on dry-weight basis (Grams_Per_SquareMeter) biomass_ha    biomass (megaGrams_Per_Hectare) by multiplying column biomass per plot with 0.01 3. Spreadsheet: biomass_poplar Description: Maximum aboveground biomass measurements from poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2015. Data shown in Figure 2. Note that poplar biomass was estimated from crop growth curves until the poplar was harvested in the winter of 2013-14. Variate    Description year    year of the observation method    methods of poplar biomass sampling date    day of the observation (mm/dd/yyyy) replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 diameter_at_ground    poplar diameter (milliMeter) at the ground diameter_at_15cm    poplar diameter (milliMeter) at 15 cm height biomass_tree    biomass per plot (Grams_Per_Tree) biomass_ha    biomass (megaGrams_Per_Hectare) by multiplying biomass per tree with 0.01 4. Spreadsheet: annual N leaching_vol-wtd conc Description: Annual leaching rate (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) and volume-weighted mean N concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) of nitrate (no3) and dissolved organic nitrogen (don) in the leachate samples collected from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2016. Data for nitrogen leached and volume-wtd mean N concentration shown in Figure 3a and Figure 3b, respectively. Note that ammonium (nh4) concentration were much lower and often undetectable (<0.07 milliGrams_N_Per_Liter). Also note that in 2009 and 2010 crop-years, data from some replicates are missing.    Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” crop-year    year of the observation replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 no3 leached    annual leaching rates of nitrate (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) don leached    annual leaching rates of don (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) vol-wtd no3 conc.    Volume-weighted mean no3 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) vol-wtd don conc.    Volume-weighted mean don concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) 5. Spreadsheet: summary_N leached Description: Summary of total amount and forms of N leached (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) and the percent of applied N lost to leaching over the seven years for corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2016. Data for nitrogen amount leached shown in Figure 4a and percent of applied N lost shown in Figure 4b. Note the fraction of unleached N includes in harvest, accumulation in root biomass, soil organic matter or gaseous N emissions were not measured in the study. Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” no3 leached    annual leaching rates of nitrate (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) don leached    annual leaching rates of don (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) N unleached    N unleached (kiloGrams_N_Per_Hectare) in other sources are not studied % of N applied N lost to leaching    % of N applied N lost to leaching 6. Spreadsheet: annual DOC leachin_vol-wtd conc Description: Annual leaching rate (kiloGrams_Per_Hectare) and volume-weighted mean N concentrations (milliGrams_Per_Liter) of dissolved organic carbon (DOC) in the leachate samples collected from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2016. Data for DOC leached and volume-wtd mean DOC concentration shown in Figure 5a and Figure 5b, respectively. Note that in 2009 and 2010 crop-years, water samples were not available for DOC measurements.     Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” crop-year    year of the observation replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 doc leached    annual leaching rates of nitrate (kiloGrams_Per_Hectare) vol-wtd doc conc.    volume-weighted mean doc concentration (milliGrams_Per_Liter) 7. Spreadsheet: growing season length Description: Growing season length (days) of corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2009-2015. Date shown in Figure S2. Note that growing season is from the date of planting or emergence to the date of harvest (or leaf senescence in case of poplar).   Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” year    year of the observation growing season length    growing season length (days) 8. Spreadsheet: correlation_nh4 VS no3 Description: Correlation of ammonium (nh4+) and nitrate (no3-) concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) in the leachate samples from corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2013-2015. Data shown in Figure S3. Note that nh4+ concentration in the leachates was very low compared to no3- and don concentration and often undetectable in three crop-years (2013-2015) when measurements are available. Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” date    date of the observation (mm/dd/yyyy) replicate    each crop has four replicated plots, R1, R2, R3 and R4 nh4 conc    nh4 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) no3 conc    no3 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter)   9. Spreadsheet: correlations_don VS no3_doc VS don Description: Correlations of don and nitrate concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter); and doc (milliGrams_Per_Liter) and don concentrations (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) in the leachate samples of corn, switchgrass, miscanthus, native grass, restored prairie and poplar plots in Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center (GLBRC) Biomass Cropping System Experiment (BCSE) during 2013-2015. Data of correlation of don and nitrate concentrations shown in Figure S4 a and doc and don concentrations shown in Figure S4 b. Variate    Description crop    “corn” “switchgrass” “miscanthus” “nativegrass” “restored prairie” “poplar” year    year of the observation don    don concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) no3     no3 concentration (milliGrams_N_Per_Liter) doc    doc concentration (milliGrams_Per_Liter) 
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  5. The Baltimore Ecosystem Study (BES) has established a network of long-term permanent biogeochemical study plots. These plots will provide long-term data on vegetation, soil and hydrologic processes in the key ecosystem types within the urban ecosystem. The current network of study plots includes eight forest plots, chosen to represent the range of forest conditions in the area, and four grass plots. These plots are complemented by a network of 200 less intensive study plots located across the Baltimore metropolitan area. Plots are currently instrumented with lysimeters (drainage and tension) to sample soil solution chemistry, time domain reflectometry probes to measure soil moisture, dataloggers to measure and record soil temperature and trace gas flux chambers to measure the flux of carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and methane from soil to the atmosphere. Measurements of in situ nitrogen mineralization, nitrification and denitrification were made at approximately monthly intervals from Fall 1998 - Fall 2000. Detailed vegetation characterization (all layers) was done in summer 1998. Data from these plots has been published in Groffman et al. (2006, 2009) and Groffman and Pouyat (2009). In November of 1998 four rural, forested plots were established at Oregon Ridge Park in Baltimore County northeast of the Gwynns Falls Watershed. Oregon Ridge Park contains Pond Branch, the forested reference watershed for BES. Two of these four plots are located on the top of a slope; the other two are located midway up the slope. In June of 2010 measurements at the mid-slope sites on Pond Branch were discontinued. Monuments and equipment remain at the two plots. These plots were replaced with two lowland riparian plots; Oregon upper riparian and Oregon lower riparian. Each riparian sites has four 5 cm by 1-2.5 meter depth slotted wells laid perpendicular to the stream, four tension lysimeters at 10 cm depth, five time domain reflectometry probes, and four trace gas flux chambers in the two dominant microtopographic features of the riparian zones - high spots (hummocks) and low spots (hollows). Four urban, forested plots were established in November 1998, two at Leakin Park and two adjacent to Hillsdale Park in west Baltimore City in the Gwynns Falls. One of the plots in Hillsdale Park was abandoned in 2004 due to continued vandalism. In May 1999 two grass, lawn plots were established at McDonogh School in Baltimore County west of the city in the Gwynns Falls. One of these plots is an extremely low intensity management area (mowed once or twice a year) and one is in a low intensity management area (frequent mowing, no fertilizer or herbicide use). In 2009, the McDonogh plots were abandoned due to management changes at the school. Two grass lawn plots were established on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) in fall 2000. One of these plots is in a medium intensity management area (frequent mowing, moderate applications of fertilizer and herbicides) and one is in a high intensity management area (frequent mowing, high applications of fertilizer and herbicides). Literature Cited Bowden R, Steudler P, Melillo J and Aber J. 1990. Annual nitrous oxide fluxes from temperate forest soils in the northeastern United States. J. Geophys. Res.-Atmos. 95, 13997 14005. Driscoll CT, Fuller RD and Simone DM (1988) Longitudinal variations in trace metal concentrations in a northern forested ecosystem. J. Environ. Qual. 17: 101-107 Goldman, M. B., P. M. Groffman, R. V. Pouyat, M. J. McDonnell, and S. T. A. Pickett. 1995. CH4 uptake and N availability in forest soils along an urban to rural gradient. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 27:281-286. Groffman PM, Holland E, Myrold DD, Robertson GP and Zou X (1999) Denitrification. In: Robertson GP, Bledsoe CS, Coleman DC and Sollins P (Eds) Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research. (pp 272-290). Oxford University Press, New York Groffman PM, Pouyat RV, Cadenasso ML, Zipperer WC, Szlavecz K, Yesilonis IC,. Band LE and Brush GS. 2006. Land use context and natural soil controls on plant community composition and soil nitrogen and carbon dynamics in urban and rural forests. Forest Ecology and Management 236:177-192. Groffman, P.M., C.O. Williams, R.V. Pouyat, L.E. Band and I.C. Yesilonis. 2009. Nitrate leaching and nitrous oxide flux in urban forests and grasslands. Journal of Environmental Quality 38:1848-1860. Groffman, P.M. and R.V. Pouyat. 2009. Methane uptake in urban forests and lawns. Environmental Science and Technology 43:5229-5235. DOI: 10.1021/es803720h. Holland EA, Boone R, Greenberg J, Groffman PM and Robertson GP (1999) Measurement of Soil CO2, N2O and CH4 exchange. In: Robertson GP, Bledsoe CS, Coleman DC and Sollins P (Eds) Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research. (pp 258-271). Oxford University Press, New York Robertson GP, Wedin D, Groffman PM, Blair JM, Holland EA, Nadelhoffer KJ and. Harris D. 1999. Soil carbon and nitrogen availability: Nitrogen mineralization, nitrification and carbon turnover. In: Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research (Robertson GP, Bledsoe CS, Coleman DC and Sollins P (Eds) Standard Soil Methods for Long Term Ecological Research. (pp 258-271). Oxford University Press, New York Savva, Y., K. Szlavecz, R. V. Pouyat, P. M. Groffman, and G. Heisler. 2010. Effects of land use and vegetation cover on soil temperature in an urban ecosystem. Soil Science Society of America Journal 74:469-480." 
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