Understanding Nitrate Isotopes in Groundwater, Adjusting Fertilizer Strategy

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Isotopes have changed our ways of understanding of where nitrates in steams and groundwater originate. Here in Michigan, protecting our water sources is of utmost importance.

It’s important to test water to get a base level for these nitrates. But how do they get there in the first place?

“There’s naturally produced nitrates in the soil that come from the air,” said Mike Slkash, senior hydrogeologist for the Dragun Corporation. “There’s chemical fertilizers that we use that contain nitrogen, and also wastewater like septic systems and animal manure from farming activities.”

Sklash that consuming groundwater with excess nitrates can cause some health issues.

“It affects the blood’s ability to take in oxygen—especially for young people, babies, and young animals,” he added.

Sklash said to manage nitrates, it’s necessary to know who is adding nitrates and where it’s coming from. There’s also a way to identify if the nitrate has been there for years or if it’s recent.

“Studies have shown in some areas where people are suing the best management practices, the nitrate coming from the groundwater into the streams isn’t getting much better,” said Sklash. “Just because you’re seeing nitrates at a location doesn’t mean you’re doing something wrong. You need to be able to demonstrate it was already there before you started your best management practices.”

Because it’s a widespread issue, it’s difficult to get rid of the nitrates altogether. Sklash added the best way of going bout things is to prevent additional nitrates from entering the groundwater system.

“Limiting the amount of fertilizer—either chemical or manure—to what is needed by crops, as well as applying judiciously in terms of location, and especially from the surface water point of view.”

Sklash said if you want to test your water, most environmental chemistry labs will analyze samples, but they need to be done the same day the sample was extracted.

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