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Home > Ag Chemicals & Fertilizers > Fertilizers > Nutrient Management > 2015 Nitrogen Fertilizer Management Plan > Fertilizer as Source of Nitrate in Groundwater

Fertilizer as Source of Nitrate in Groundwater


There is an extensive body of research documenting that nitrate from nitrogen fertilizer can leach below the root zone and migrate to groundwater.

While contributions from soil organic matter, manure applications and legume crops do occur, fertilizer inputs are recognized as the most important in terms of management options. Nitrogen fertilizer sales have increased dramatically since the 1960s and corresponding increases in nitrate concentrations in vulnerable regions of the Midwestern states are well documented.

Rather than repeating the science, this document provides a short list of useful references for some of this research. While there is a wealth of information in the scientific journals, many articles are not publicly available without a subscription. For purposes of this document we will provide references that are accessible on the web and a separate list of articles that are only accessible through academic journals.

Of particular relevance is ongoing work in the state of Nebraska which clearly documents nitrate impacts to groundwater from fertilizer, work by the United States Geologic Survey (USGS) on sources of nitrate in wells, and work by numerous researchers on the leaching potential for nitrate under various cropping systems and practices in Minnesota.

The Township Testing Program (TTP) helps to identify areas with elevated nitrate and at the same time informs well owners of the potential health risk from nitrate and pesticides in their well. Nitrate in wells can come from non-fertilizer sources such as feedlots, septic systems and overland flow into damaged well casings. Therefore the TTP applies a rigorous protocol using trained technical staff to inspect the well and its location for potential contaminant sources and removes wells that fail the inspection from the data set. The MDA will not make regulatory decisions based on TTP data. MDA will develop and use a local groundwater monitoring network or public water supply well(s) for assessing local water quality.

Articles and Reports Accessible on the Web

Studies from Nebraska:

Studies from the USGS:

Minnesota Studies:

  • Carlson, B., Vetsch, J., and Randall, G. 2013. Nitrates in drainage water. University of Minnesota Extension, 10pp. (https://www.extension.umn.edu/agriculture/water/water-quality/nitrates-in-drainage-water/)
  • MPCA, 1998. Nitrate in Minnesota Groundwater (PDF). Report. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, St. Paul MN. (https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/wq-s6-26a.pdf)
  • MPCA, 2014. Minnesota Nutrient Reduction Strategy (PDF). Report. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, St. Paul MN. (https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/wq-s1-80.pdf)

Journal Articles

These are other references, however they are not publicly available. They are only available through journal subscription.

  • Puckett, L. J., Cowdery, T.K., 2002. Transport and Fate of Nitrate in a Glacial Outwash Aquifer in Relation to Ground Water Age, Land Use Practices, and Redox Processes. J. Environ. Qual. 31, 782-796. 
  • Puckett, L. J., Cowdery, T.K., Lorenz, D.L., Stoner, J.D. 1999. Estimation of Nitrate Contamination of an Agro-Ecosystem Outwash Aquifer Using a Nitrogen Mass-Balance Budget. J. Environ. Qual. 28, 2015-2025. 
  • Böhlke, J. K., Wanty, R., Tuttle, M., Delin, G., Landon, M. 2002. Denitrification in the recharge area and discharge area of a transient agricultural nitrate plume in a glacial outwash sand aquifer, Minnesota, Water Resour. Res., 38(7), 10-1 – 10-26.
  • Davis, D. M., Gowda, P.H, Mulla, D.J., Randall G.W., 2000. Modeling Nitrate Nitrogen Leaching in Response to Nitrogen Fertilizer Rate and Tile Drain Depth or Spacing for Southern Minnesota, USA. J. Environ. Qual. 29, 1568-1581.
  • Debrewer, L.M., Ator, S.W., Denver, J.M., 2007. Factors affecting spatial and temporal variability in nutrient and pesticide concentrations in the surficial aquifer on the Delmarva Peninsula. U.S. Geologic Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2005-5257, 44 pp.
  • DeSimone, L.A., Hamilton, P.A., Gilliom, R.J., 2009. The quality of our nation’s waters – quality of water from domestic wells in principal aquifers of the United States, 1991-2004 – Overview of major findings. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1332, 48 pp.
  • Feyereisen, G. W., Wilson, B.N., Sands, G.R., Strock, J.S., Porter, P.M., 2006. Potential for a Rye Cover Crop to Reduce Nitrate Loss in Southwestern Minnesota. Agron. J. 98, 1416-1426.
  • Gerwing, J.R., Caldwell, A.C., Goodroad, L.L., 1979. Fertilizer nitrogen distribution under irrigation between soil, plant and aquifer. J. Environ. Qual. 8, 281-284.
  • Hopkins, B. G., Rosen, C.J., Shiffler, A.K., Taysom, T.W., 2008. Enhanced Efficiency Fertilizers for Improved Nutrient Management: Potato (Solanum tuberosum). Crop Manag. 7.
  • Huggins, D. R., Randall, G.W., Russelle, M.P.,. 2001. Subsurface Drain Losses of Water and Nitrate following Conversion of Perennials to Row Crops Joint publication of the USDA-ARS and the Minn. Agric. Exp. Stn. Agron. J. 93, 477-486.
  • Jokela, W. E., Randall, G.W., 1989. Corn Yield and Residual Soil Nitrate as Affected by Time and Rate of Nitrogen Application. Agron. J. 81, 720-726.
  • Oquist, K.A., Strock, J.S., Mulla, D.J., 2007 Influence of Alternative and Conventional Farming Practices on Subsurface Drainage and Water Quality J. Environ. Qual. 36, 1194-1204.
  • Puckett, L..J., 1995. Identifying the Major Sources of Nutrient Water Pollution. Journal of Environmental Science & Technology Vol. 29, No. 9., 408-414.
  • Randall, G. W., Mulla, D.J., 2001. Nitrate Nitrogen in Surface Waters as Influenced by Climatic Conditions and Agricultural Practices. J. Environ. Qual. 30, 337-344
  • Randall, G. W., Vetsch, J.A., 2005. Nitrate Losses in Subsurface Drainage from a Corn–Soybean Rotation as Affected by Fall and Spring Application of Nitrogen and Nitrapyrin. J. Environ. Qual. 34, 590-597.
  • Randall, G.W., Vetsch, J.A., 2008. Minimizing Nitrate Loss to Drainage by Optimizing N Rate and Timing for a C-C-S Rotation. Annual Report to Minnesota’s Agricultural Fertilizer Research and Education Council. 19 pp.
  • Randall, G.W., Vetsch, J.A., Huffman, J.R., 2003. Nitrate Losses in Subsurface Drainage from a Corn–Soybean Rotation as Affected by Time of Nitrogen Application and Use of Nitrapyrin J. Environ. Qual 32, 1764-1772.
  • Schilling, K.E., Streeter, M.T., 2017. Groundwater nutrient concentrations and mass loading rates at Iowa golf courses. J. Amer. Wat. Res. Assoc., paper no JAWRA-17-0033-P.
  • Struffert, A. M., Rubin, J.C., Fernández, F.G., Lamb, J.A., 2016. Nitrogen Management for Corn and Groundwater Quality in Upper Midwest Irrigated Sands. J. Environ. Qual. 45, 1557-1564.
  • Tomer, M.D., Burkart, M.R., 2003. Long-term effects of nitrogen fertilizer use on ground water nitrate in two small watersheds. Journal of Environmental Quality 32, 2158-2171.
  • Venterea, R. T., Hyatt, C.R., Rosen, C.J., 2011. Fertilizer Management Effects on Nitrate Leaching and Indirect Nitrous Oxide Emissions in Irrigated Potato Production. J. Environ. Qual. 40, 1103-1112.
  • Vetsch, J. A., Randall, G.W., 2004. Corn Production as Affected by Nitrogen Application Timing and Tillage. Agron. J. 96, 502-509.
  • Wilson, M. L., Rosen, C.J., Moncrief, J.F., 2009. Potato Response to a Polymer-Coated Urea on an Irrigated, Coarse-Textured Soil. Agron. J. 101, 897-905.
  • Zvomuya, F., Rosen, C.J., Roselle, M.P., Gupta, S.C., 2003. Nitrate leaching and nitrogen recovery following application of polyolefin-coated urea to potato. J Environ. Qual. 32, 480-489.