An overview of nitrate sources and operating processes in arid and semiarid aquifer systems


Nitrate concentration in most aquifers in arid and semi-arid areas has increased in the past several decades as a result of human activities. Under the predominantly oxic conditions of these aquifers, denitrification is inhibited, allowing nitrate, a soluble and stable form of nitrogen (N), to accumulate. Because of its close association with municipal and agricultural wastes, nitrate is commonly used as an indicator of anthropogenic contamination. Aquifers affected by agricultural waste may contain salts from irrigation returns and herbicides in addition to nitrates. Preventing leakage from soil to deeper parts of the aquifer is thus a priority in the sustainable management of aquifers in arid and semiarid areas. Studies report a wide range of nitrate concentrations distributed non-uniformly within the aquifer, with roughly 40% and 20% of sampled wells exceeding 50 mg/L nitrate in shallow and deep parts of the aquifer respectively. In aquifers at risk of becoming contaminated, nitrate isotopes (δ15N, δ18O, Δ17O) can be used to identify the source of nitrogen as mineral or organic fertilizer, sewage, or atmospheric deposition. A variety of mathematical models (crop, hydrological, geochemical, or a combination of them) have been successful in identifying best practices that minimize N leakage without negatively affecting crop yield. In addition, field research in crop management, e.g., conservation agriculture, has yielded promising results in determining the adequate dosage and time of application of fertilizers to reduce N losses. Examples of key dryland aquifers impacted by nitrate are discussed, and some of the most pressing challenges to achieve sustainability are presented.



Document Type





aquifer contamination, nitrate, nitrate isotopes, semiarid, sustainability

Publication Date


Journal Title

Science of the Total Environment