Nitrogen isotope hydrochemistry and denitrification within the Chalk aquifer system of north Norfolk, UK

N. A. Feast, K. M. Hiscock, P. F. Dennis, J. N. Andrews

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Although there has been much debate over the potential health risks of nitrate in drinking water, there is a real issue of the costs associated with removing nitrate from drinking water supplies. In the Chalk aquifer system of north-east Norfolk, modem contaminants of a mainly agricultural origin produce high levels of nitrate (> 15 mg/l NO3-N) in the unconfined valley areas, whereas in confined regions the levels of nitrate are low and commonly below detection limits (< 0.04 mg/l NO3-N). To understand the source and fate of nitrate within this aquifer system, a detailed hydrochemical sampling programme has been completed in the River Bure catchment. Nitrogen isotope values (δ15N) for nitrate within the unconfined and semi-confined zones range between + 4‰ and + 10‰, characteristic of nitrified soil organic nitrogen. However, many Chalk groundwaters possess high N2/Ar ratios (39-72) indicating a significant contribution to dissolved N2 from denitrification. Denitrification is believed to be occurring within the overlying glacial deposits, providing a mechanism for naturally improving groundwater quality. δ15N values of low-nitrate groundwaters from the confined zone are isotopically light (-3‰ to + 4‰), inconsistent with an origin from denitrification: it is suggested that these waters have a pre-anthropogenic nitrate signature.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-252
Number of pages20
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Issue number1-4
Publication statusPublished - Nov 1998


  • Chalk
  • Denitrification
  • Groundwater
  • Nitrate
  • Nitrogen isotopes

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