Evaluating Innovative Nutrient Management Options and Seasonal Groundwater Recharge Dynamics in an Agricultural Source Water Protection Area
Brook, Jacqueline Marie
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This thesis presents two interrelated studies that consider nutrient management and seasonal changes in recharge on agricultural lands within the context of source water protection. The research focuses first on the management of the risk to groundwater quality through the implementation of various nutrient management practices and secondly considers the dynamic nature of the transport pathway to the groundwater system associated with seasonal changes in climate and hydrology. The combined results provide insight into several of the key factors influencing the protection of groundwater sources within the agricultural landscape. Field work was completed between 2009 and 2010 on an agricultural field near the City of Woodstock, Ontario. The site is located within a source water protection area; the two-year travel time zone of the Thornton Well Field which represents the primary water supply for the City of Woodstock and which has experienced chronic increases in nitrate concentrations over the last few decades. The wells are completed in glacial overburden consisting of intermingling sand and gravel till aquifers which overly a limestone bedrock aquifer. Agricultural best or beneficial management practices (BMPs) field have been implemented and monitored since 2004. The BMPs were adopted in order to reduce nitrogen losses to the aquifer, and consisted of a reduction in nitrogen fertilizer application rates over a series of agricultural fields located near the well The first study is a one year experiment designed to compare alternative nutrient management practices for corn. Combinations of fertilizer treatments with or without a legume cover crop (red clover) were assessed. The fertilizer treatments studied were: a polymer coated urea (slow-release fertilizer) applied at planting, a conventional urea applied at planting, side-dress treatment of a solution of urea and ammonium nitrate in water containing 28% nitrogen with two different application rates applied in the early summer, and a control. The legume cover crop was incorporated in the soil in the previous fall, and acts as a slow release fertilizer as nitrogen is made available to the following crop as the plants decompose. Treatments were compared based on crop yield, overall economic return, and the potential for nitrate leaching. The potential for nitrate leaching was evaluated with bi-weekly shallow soil core during the growing season, and deep soil cores taken before planting, after harvest and the following spring. The deep cores allowed changes in nitrate storage below the rooting zone to be assessed. The results of this study highlight the importance of timing of fertilizer applications and rate of fertilizer applications. Treatments which provide a delay in the release or application of fertilizer, the polymer-coated urea, the calculator-rate side-dress and the clover cover crop, were found to be advantageous. The polymer-coated urea treatments and side-dress treatments were found to reduce leaching compared to the conventional urea treatment. Treatments with the clover cover crops were not found to reduce crop yields or increase leaching potential, and lower fertilizer costs associated to this practice were found to have a positive economic effect. Plots treated with the high-rate side-dress fertilizer application lost more nitrate to the subsurface compared to the other treatment options, and an economic disadvantage was observed as yields did not compensate for higher fertilizer costs. The study highlights the advantages of the different treatments under study, which may be used to inform policy makers and farmers in the selection of economically and environmentally sustainable nutrient management BMP options. Groundwater monitoring at the site over the years has indentified interesting recharge dynamics, particularly in the vicinity of an ephemeral stream which develops annually during spring and winter melt events in a low lying area of the study site. It was hypothesized that rapid recharge could occur beneath the stream allowing for surface water to quickly reach groundwater, posing a threat to municipal water wells. The current framework of source water protection does not take into account the potential risk posed by this type recharge event. At this field site, rapid infiltration associated with this type of event may pose a risk to drinking water quality due to the proximity of the stream to the pumping wells and the nature of the aquifer. The second study examines rapid groundwater recharge processes beneath the ephemeral stream during the course of a spring melt in 2010. The goals of the study were to quantify recharge at one location beneath the stream and to assess whether temperature variations above the water table can be used as a tracer to reasonably estimate recharge during a short live recharge event. A novel housing for the temperature sensors was designed in order to deploy and position them into gravelly materials within the vadose zone, which reduced the potential for the formation of preferential pathways and permitted the retrieval of the sensors at a later date. Field data were collected during the course of the spring melt period from a network of groundwater monitoring wells and subsurface temperature sensors. Spatial and temporal changes in groundwater geochemistry, hydraulic head and temperature were were used to characterize recharge dynamics at the field site. Recharge beneath a segment of the ephemeral stream was quantified through the numerical analysis of the field data using Hydrus 1-D, a one-dimensional numerical model designed to simulate soil water flow and heat transport in variably saturated porous media. Site specific data were used to create the model domain, provide estimates of physical parameters, and to define initial and time variable boundary conditions. Model parameters were first calibrated by simulating periods where it was expected that soils would be gravity drained with minimal soil water flow, and then further refined by simulating the period when the ephemeral stream was present. A final set of parameters was determined, and the initial gravity drained conditions were re-simulated. The model was able to reproduce field observations under different flow scenarios using the final set of parameters, suggesting that the conceptual model and final model domain representative of the actual field conditions. The successful simulation of the field data sets under the different flow scenarios also increases confidence in the uniqueness of the model results. The model estimated that 0.15 m of recharge occurred beneath the instrumented site during the period between March 9th and March 22nd of 2010 when the ephemeral stream was present. This represents approximately a third of the expected total annual recharge for this location. Regional changes in hydraulic head, groundwater temperature and groundwater chemistry provided additional insight into the dynamic nature of the recharge process during the spring meld period and further illustrated the spatial variability of the aquifers’ response to the stream. The study found that the use of temperature as a tracer provided useful and quantifiable insight into recharge phenomena. The results of this study suggest that high rates of rapid recharge occur beneath the ephemeral stream, and are spatially variable. This type of focused infiltration that occurs during the spring melt may represent a risk to municipal water quality if the infiltrating waters are carrying contaminants.