Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Stable isotopes provide insight into sources and cycling of N compounds in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California, USA

February 11, 2022

River deltas and their diverse array of aquatic environments are increasingly impacted by anthropogenic inputs of nitrogen (N). These inputs can alter the N biogeochemistry of these systems and promote undesirable phenomena including harmful algae blooms and invasive aquatic macrophytes. To examine N sources and biogeochemical processes in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, a river delta located in central California, USA, that is fed primarily by the Sacramento River, we utilized a multi-tracer approach that measured N species concentrations and stable isotope values monthly from April 2011 to November 2012 in samples collected from the channelized mainstem of the Sacramento River, two channelized distributaries of the Sacramento River, and the Cache Slough Complex, a network of Sacramento River tributaries and shallow water wetland habitat. We found that the Sacramento River and its channelized distributaries received N primarily in the form of NH4+ from treated wastewater effluent and that NH4+ was lost rapidly while NO3 was gained more slowly during subsequent downstream transit, driven by an array of biogeochemical processes whose identities could be constrained via examination of stable isotope values. The Cache Slough Complex, which was characterized by lower net flows and higher water residence times than the Sacramento River and its distributaries, received variable inputs of low conductivity water elevated in NH4+ from the Sacramento River and higher conductivity water elevated in NO3 from landward tributaries. Deviations from expected conservative mixing of these sources were spatially variable but broadly indicative of local inputs of treated wastewater effluent NO3, conversion of Sacramento River NH4+ to NO3 via nitrification, uptake of NH4+ and NO3 by phytoplankton, and remineralization of organic N. These findings highlight both the diversity in N dynamics in anthropogenically impacted river delta environments and the utility of a multi-tracer approach in constraining these processes in such complex systems.

Citation Information

Publication Year 2022
Title Stable isotopes provide insight into sources and cycling of N compounds in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California, USA
DOI 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.151592
Authors Joseph K. Fackrell, Tamara E. C. Kraus, Megan B. Young, Carol Kendall, Sara Peek
Publication Type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Series Title Science of the Total Environment
Series Number
Index ID 70232359
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center