Research Seeks To Control Nitrate Leaching And Protect Nebraska Groundwater | Nebraska today

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All over the world and all over Nebraska, nitrogen fertilizers are regularly used to grow crops.

Some of this nitrogen is converted to nitrate which can be easily lost from the root zone, eventually contaminating ground and surface water. In addition to being harmful to human health, excess nitrate in drinking water is expensive for small communities to treat. The sandy, irrigated soils of Nebraska are very vulnerable to nitrate leaching, and there are few options to control nitrogen losses from these fields.

These concerns prompted researchers in Nebraska to try something new on this old problem.

In 2018, the Nebraska Water Center received a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust to study how injecting carbon into the subsoil – through mulch and sawdust – could absorb and remove additional nitrates from the soil. The project is led by Dan Snow, professor and researcher and director of the University of Nebraska Water Sciences Laboratory.

“This project is innovative because it offers a new economic approach to improve the quality of groundwater,” Snow said.

The goal of the project is to provide a cost effective method for growers and natural resource districts in Nebraska to reduce nitrate leaching under cropland in areas most vulnerable to groundwater contamination. This spring, Snow and coworkers injected finely ground wood mulch under the root zone using a modified subsoil plow at two demonstration sites in the Bazile groundwater management zone to the north. -East Nebraska. They will monitor the differences in nitrate leaching between treated and untreated fields over several growing seasons to measure the effectiveness of the method. The team will return this fall to collect water, soil and plant biomass samples for analysis.

Ultimately, the project seeks to demonstrate the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of using an abundant source of carbon to intercept and remove dissolved nitrate after it has left the root zone.

In addition to Snow, the team includes Arindam Malakar, assistant research professor, Nebraska Water Center; Amy Schmidt, assistant professor, Department of Biological Systems Engineering, University of Nebraska-Lincoln; Daniel Miller, research microbiologist, USDA Agricultural research service; and Xiaochen Dong, graduate student, School of Natural Resources, Nebraska.

Additional support to the project is provided by the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute and the Bazile Groundwater Management Zone. Learn more.

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