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Nitrogen and Water

Nitrogen and Water

Nitrogen and Water

Nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are essential for plant and animal growth and nourishment, but the overabundance of certain nutrients in water can cause a number of adverse health and ecological effects. Nitrogen, in the forms of nitrate, nitrite, or ammonium, is a nutrient needed for plant growth. About 78% of the air that we breathe is composed of nitrogen gas, and in some areas of the United States, particularly the northeast, certain forms of nitrogen are commonly deposited in acid rain.

Of course nitrogen is used in agriculture to grow crops, and on many farms the landscape has been greatly modified in order to maximize farming output. Fields have been leveled and also modified to efficiently drain off excess water that may fall as precipitation or from irrigation practices. This pictures shows Sugar Creek in Indiana, as it has been extensively modified for human use. As commonly found in small agricultural streams, Sugar Creek has been straightened, deepened, and had tile drains installed to favor rapid removal of water from agricultural lands. If excess nitrogen is found in the crop fields, the drainage water can introduce it into streams like these, which will drain into other larger rivers and might end up in the Gulf of Mexico, where excess nitrogen can lead to hypoxic conditions (lack of oxygen).

Sources of nitrogen
Surface drain receiving gravity drainage from cropland in the San Joaquin Valley of California (photograph by Marc Sylvester, USGS). Although nitrogen is abundant naturally in the environment, it is also introduced through sewage and fertilizers. Chemical fertilizers or animal manure is commonly applied to crops to add nutrients. It may be difficult or expensive to retain on site all nitrogen brought on to farms for feed or fertilizer and generated by animal manure. Unless specialized structures have been built on the farms, heavy rains can generate runoff containing these materials into nearby streams and lakes. Wastewater-treatment facilities that do not specifically remove nitrogen can also lead to excess levels of nitrogen in surface or groundwater.

Nitrate can get into water directly as the result of runoff of fertilizers containing nitrate. Some nitrate enters water from the atmosphere, which carries nitrogen-containing compounds derived from automobiles and other sources. More than 3 million tons of nitrogen are deposited in the United States each year from the atmosphere, derived either naturally from chemical reactions or from the combustion of fossil fuels, such as coal and gasoline. Nitrate can also be formed in water bodies through the oxidation of other forms of nitrogen, including nitrite, ammonia, and organic nitrogen compounds such as amino acids. Ammonia and organic nitrogen can enter water through sewage effluent and runoff from land where manure has been applied or stored.