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Metolachlor metabolite (MESA) reveals agricultural nitrate-N fate and transport in Choptank River watershed

February 11, 2014

Over 50% of streams in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have been rated as poor or very poor based on the index of biological integrity. The Choptank River estuary, a Bay tributary on the eastern shore, is one such waterway, where corn and soybean production in upland areas of the watershed contribute significant loads of nutrients and sediment to streams. We adopted a novel approach utilizing the relationship between the concentration of nitrate-N and the stable, water-soluble herbicide degradation product MESA {2-[2-ethyl-N-(1-methoxypropan-2-yl)-6-methylanilino]-2-oxoethanesulfonic acid} to distinguish between dilution and denitrification effects on the stream concentration of nitrate-N in agricultural subwatersheds. The ratio of mean nitrate-N concentration/(mean MESA concentration * 1000) for 15 subwatersheds was examined as a function of percent cropland on hydric soil. This inverse relationship (R2 = 0.65, p < 0.001) takes into consideration not only dilution and denitrification of nitrate-N, but also the stream sampling bias of the croplands caused by extensive drainage ditch networks. MESA was also used to track nitrate-N concentrations within the estuary of the Choptank River. The relationship between nitrate-N and MESA concentrations in samples collected over three years was linear (0.95 ≤ R2 ≤ 0.99) for all eight sampling dates except one where R2 = 0.90. This very strong correlation indicates that nitrate-N was conserved in much of the Choptank River estuary, that dilution alone is responsible for the changes in nitrate-N and MESA concentrations, and more importantly nitrate-N loads are not reduced in the estuary prior to entering the Chesapeake Bay. Thus, a critical need exists to minimize nutrient export from agricultural production fields and to identify specific conservation practices to address the hydrologic conditions within each subwatershed. In well drained areas, removal of residual N within the cropland is most critical, and practices such as cover crops which sequester the residual N should be strongly encouraged. In poorly drained areas where denitrification can occur, wetland restoration and controlled drained structures that minimize ditch flow should be used to maximize denitrification.

Publication Year 2014
Title Metolachlor metabolite (MESA) reveals agricultural nitrate-N fate and transport in Choptank River watershed
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2013.12.017
Authors Gregory W. McCarty, Cathleen J. Hapeman, Clifford P. Rice, W. Dean Hively, Laura L. McConnell, Ali M. Sadeghi, Megan W. Lang, David R. Whitall, Krystyna Bialek, Peter Downey
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Science of the Total Environment
Index ID 70093719
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Eastern Geographic Science Center