Stable isotopes of nitrate reveal different nitrogen processing mechanisms in streams across a land use gradient during wet and dry periods

Wei Wen Wong, Jesse Pottage, Fiona Y. Warry, Paul Reich, Keryn Lea Roberts, Michael Raymond Grace, Perran Cook

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Understanding the relationship between land use and the dynamics of nitrate (NO3 -) is the key to constrain sources of NO3 - export in order to aid effective management of waterways. In this study, isotopic compositions of NO3 - (δ15N-NO3 - and δ18O-NO3 -) were used to elucidate the effects of land use (agriculture in particular) and rainfall on the major sources and sinks of NO3 - within the Western Port catchment, Victoria, Australia. This study is one of the very few studies carried out in temperate regions with highly stochastic rainfall patterns, enabling a more comprehensive understanding of the applications of NO3 - isotopes in catchment ecosystems with different climatic conditions. Longitudinal samples were collected from five streams with different agriculture land use intensities on five occasions - three during dry periods and two during wet periods. At the catchment scale, we observed significant positive relationships between NO3 - concentrations (p < 0.05), δ15N-NO3 - (p < 0.01) and percentage agriculture (particularly during the wet period), reflecting the dominance of anthropogenic nitrogen inputs within the catchment. Different rainfall conditions appeared to be major controls on the predominance of the sources and transformation processes of NO3 - in our study sites. Artificial fertiliser was the dominant source of NO3 - during the wet periods. In addition to artificial fertiliser, nitrified organic matter in sediment was also an apparent source of NO3 - to the surface water during the dry periods. Denitrification was prevalent during the wet periods, while uptake of NO3 - by plants or algae was only observed during the dry periods in two streams. The outcome of this study suggests that effective reduction of NO3 - load to the streams can only be achieved by prioritising management strategies based on different rainfall conditions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3953-3965
Number of pages13
Issue number13
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2018


  • Nitrate
  • Land use
  • Stable isotopes

Cite this