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Monitoring the water-quality response of agricultural conservation practices in the Bucks Branch watershed, Sussex County, Delaware, 2014–16

July 18, 2018

The purpose of this study was to evaluate the effects of irrigation and cover crops as conservation practices on water quality in groundwater and streams. Bucks Branch, a stream in the Nanticoke River watershed in southwestern Delaware, was identified as having one of the highest concentrations of nitrate in all surface-water sites sampled by the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control (DNREC). The study site is on two adjacent fields bordering Bucks Branch, one that has used irrigation since 2000 and one with dryland farming; both under conservation tillage and long-term rotation of corn, soybean, and small grain crops. A streamgage was installed near the study site fields to measure streamflow and water quality. The study area is typical of farming practices and environmental conditions throughout much of the intensively farmed agricultural land of the Coastal Plain of Delaware and surrounding parts of Maryland. Monitoring was conducted from January 2014 through June 2016. Corn was grown on both fields during the two growing seasons of the study period, and cover crops were planted before or shortly after harvest on both fields. During the second year of data collection, the effects of radish and rye grass cover crops on nutrient transport were studied.

The combined results from data collected for this study show that water and nitrate moved below the root zone year round when soil moisture was high, especially after significant rainfall and frequently after irrigation. Soil water sampled 2 to 3 weeks after nutrients were applied had nitrate concentrations greater than 50 milligrams per liter as nitrogen (mg/L as N) and may be a significant source of nitrate to groundwater. Whereas recharge containing elevated nitrate concentrations also occurred under the dryland field, it was less frequent and of lower concentration than recharge under the irrigated field.

Nitrate was present in all groundwater samples from these sites. Groundwater estimated to have recharged within 10 years or less had higher median concentrations of nitrate than in older water samples. The oldest groundwater encountered was over 30 years old, and had traveled along the longest, deep flowpaths from upland fields to the stream. The median nitrate concentration was 18 mg/L as N in younger water (less than 10 years old) beneath the irrigated field, compared to about 10 mg/L as N in younger water beneath the dryland field. Samples from the shallow upland wells in both study fields showed little, if any, evidence of denitrification. Several samples from deeper wells and from wells near forested riparian zone wetlands that border both fields did show partial denitrification.

A mixing model estimated that between 12 and 22 percent of the nitrate discharging to the stream was lost through uptake and denitrification upstream of the streamgage on Bucks Branch. Continuous data collected at this site and evidence of denitrification in the surface-water samples showed a greater potential for loss of nitrate during the warmer months than the colder months. This pattern was similar to that seen below the streamgage at the most downstream site in the watershed.

A mixed cover crop of radishes and rye was planted prior to removal (radishes) and just after harvest (rye) of the corn crop on the irrigated field. Rye grass was planted shortly after crop harvest on the dryland field. Cover crop biomass samples collected while radishes were growing and after they were killed by freezing temperatures indicates that the early planted radish crop effectively scavenged available nitrogen from the soil. Whereas radish biomass initially held more nitrogen than rye, at 55 to 8 pounds per acre, respectively, leaching of inorganic nitrate following radish die-off was minimal. Soil-water nitrate concentrations during the cover-crop growing period were lower than during the growing season prior to planting of the cover crop. There also was an increase in soil fertility and dissolved organic nitrate in samples of soil water that was likely related to increased soil microbial metabolism. Results indicate that cover crops stored plant nutrients over the winter and did not increase shallow groundwater concentrations of nitrate.

Although conservation practices such as cover crops and nutrient management have been applied to these fields, there was still significant leaching of nitrate to groundwater, especially under the irrigated field. This will likely continue to be a challenge in this area and other parts of the Coastal Plain where soil moisture capacity is relatively low and managing irrigation around rainfall is difficult. Cover crops, when planted in standing corn, are one practice that can effectively pull nitrate from below the root zone to the top layer of soil, thus limiting the amount of potential nitrate leaching to groundwater. Irrigation management that would lower average soil moisture conditions during the growing season also could potentially limit nitrogen transport.

Publication Year 2018
Title Monitoring the water-quality response of agricultural conservation practices in the Bucks Branch watershed, Sussex County, Delaware, 2014–16
DOI 10.3133/sir20185020
Authors Judith M. Denver, Alex M. Soroka, Betzaida Reyes, Todd R. Lester, Deborah A. Bringman, M.S. Brownley
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2018-5020
Index ID sir20185020
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Maryland Water Science Center