Study Shows Wetlands Provide Landscape-scale Reduction in Nitrogen Pollution

Study Shows Wetlands Provide Landscape-scale Reduction in Nitrogen Pollution

"Wetland complexes" in a watershed are very effective in reducing nitrate.

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Wetland complex, source: Pixabay

In agricultural regions such as the U.S. Midwest, excess nitrate from crop fertilizer makes its way into rivers and streams through subsurface drainage channels and agricultural ditches.

High nitrate concentrations in waterways can be harmful to ecosystems and human health, contaminating drinking water and eventually flowing downstream far enough to increase the size of the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone."

A study published today in the journal  Nature Geoscience  by National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded researchers offers new insights into this problem: Multiple wetlands, or "wetland complexes" in a watershed, are extremely effective at reducing nitrate levels in rivers and streams.

Wetland complexes can be five times better at reducing nitrate than the best land-based nitrogen mitigation strategies, the scientists say.

"Agricultural productivity benefits the economy, but is often accompanied by environmental costs," says Tom Torgersen, director of NSF's Water, Sustainability and Climate program, which funded the research. "This study demonstrates that retaining or restoring wetlands in intensively managed agricultural watersheds would reduce nitrate in rivers and improve local water quality, while also reducing nitrate exports to the Gulf of Mexico hypoxic [dead] zone."

Using water samples collected over a four-year period from more than 200 waterways in the 17,000-square-mile Minnesota River Basin (MRB), along with geospatial information on land use in the MRB watershed, researchers isolated the effects of wetlands on stream and river nitrate concentrations.

The research produced a number of significant findings:

Read full article: NSF