Influence of Pleistocene glacial deposits on the transport of agricultural nitrate in the river Wensum catchment, UK

Kevin M. Hiscock, Richard J. Cooper, Melinda A. Lewis, Daren C. Gooddy, Thomas J. Howson, Sarah K. Wexler

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Mitigating NO3− pollution requires an understanding of the hydrological processes controlling contaminant mobilisation and transport, particularly in agricultural catchments underlain by Pleistocene glacial deposits. Focusing on the Wensum catchment in East Anglia, UK, precipitation (n = 20), stream water (n = 50), field drainage (n = 22) and groundwater (n = 84) samples collected between February–March 2011 and April–September 2012 were variously analysed for water stable isotopes (δ2HH2O and δ18OH2O), the dual-isotopes of NO3− (δ15NNO3 and δ18ONO3), groundwater residence time indicators (CFCs and SF6) and hydrochemical parameters. The residence time indicators suggested a component of modern (post-1960) groundwater throughout the sequence of glacial deposits that corresponds with the penetration of agricultural NO3−. Denitrification and lower NO3− concentrations (<8 mg L−1) are observed in the glacial tills, compared with higher NO3− concentrations (<90 mg L−1) observed under more oxidising conditions in the glacial sands and gravels. Storm hydrograph separation for two storms in April and September 2012 using two- and three-component mixing models showed a faster response with field drainage (36–38 %) and baseflow (5–37 %) contributing to the total stream discharge in areas of clay loam soils over glacial tills. In these areas, the dual stable isotopes of NO3− (δ15NNO3 = +11.8 ‰ and δ18ONO3 = +7.1 ‰) indicated a denitrified source of nitrogen from field drainage and groundwater. In comparison, a dampened response and a higher percentage of baseflow (29–80 %) was observed in areas of sandy clay loam soils over glacial sands and gravels. In these areas, mean NO3− isotopic signatures (δ15NNO3 = +7.8 ‰ and δ18ONO3 = +5.0 ‰) indicated a source of nitrified NH4+. In conclusion, understanding hydrological processes in catchments underlain by variable glacial deposits can inform nutrient management plans and cultivation practices to reduce the risk of agricultural NO3− contamination.
Original languageEnglish
Article number130982
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Early online date28 Feb 2024
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2024


  • Agriculture
  • Groundwater nitrate
  • Groundwater residence time indicators
  • Pleistocene glacial deposits
  • Stable isotopes
  • Storm hydrograph separation

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