Optimizing carbon to nitrogen ratios to improve nitrogen removal in agricultural drainage ditches

Author(s): Faust, D.; Kröger, R.; Miranda, L.; Cox, M.; Moore, M.; Rush, S.

The annual occurrence of a hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico is caused by nitrogen loads from the Mississippi River Basin, which includes agricultural drainage ditches. The objectives of these studies were: (1) evaluate how organic carbon amendments affect nitrate-nitrogen removal in agricultural drainage ditch systems using laboratory microcosms, (2) determine effects of organic carbon amendments and flow rate on nitrate-nitrogen removal in a semi-controlled field setting using experimental drainage ditches, and (3) assess relationships between organic carbon and nitrogen content of overlying water, pore water, and sediments of drainage ditches throughout the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley. In laboratory experiments, nitrate-nitrogen removal in dissolved and particulate organic carbon treatments was greater than 90% compared to as low as 60% in control treatments. The optimal carbon-to-nitrogen ratio of organic carbon amendments for efficient nitrate-nitrogen removal was 5:1. Experiments in experimental drainage ditches revealed that flow substantially lowered the ability of organic carbon amendments to remove nitrate-nitrogen with a maximum percent nitrate-nitrogen reduction of 31.6% in a dissolved organic carbon treatment, although implementation of low-grade weirs in experimental drainage ditches did result in removal of nitrate nitrogen in all treatments and at all flow rates. Examining the nitrogen and organic carbon contents in agricultural drainage ditches throughout the Lower Mississippi Alluvial Valley revealed that organic carbon content in overlying water, pore water, and sediments are lower than observed in other wetland-like ecosystems and indeed may be limiting denitrification and other nitrogen removal processes. Increasing organic carbon content overall could be achieved by using organic carbon amendments, but this body of research highlights that additional studies are necessary to ensure successful implementation of organic carbon amendments that reach their greatest potential as a management practice to effectively remove nitrate-nitrogen in the realistic settings of agricultural drainage ditches.

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