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Novel Method to Address Nitrogen Pollution and Improve Water Quality

Groundwater quality impairment increasingly threatens the natural environment due in part to incidences of eutrophication as a result of agricultural nitrogen. Despite billions of dollars being poured into improving water quality and other global conservation measures, the results have been minimalistic.

Novel Method to Address Nitrogen Pollution and Improve Water Quality.

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Such assumed failures also impact human health and can be partly attributed to legacy nitrogen over decades of cumulative agricultural intensification, which can impede water quality improvement strategies. Such lags in water quality improvement need to be addressed in any future strategies.

Now, a group of researchers led by a team at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, have created a novel method to address nitrogen pollution and improve water quality. Published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the researchers sought to better understand the role of legacy nitrogen in water quality levels to leverage better policy and improve environmental outcomes.

Six-Point Strategy

The team set out a six-point strategy as a call for action to accelerate the improvement of water quality. The strategy was created as a way to acknowledge that such legacies and issues persist and find ways to improve existing knowledge.

It is critical that we develop methodologies to quantify N [nitrogen] legacies and lag times. Such estimates are critical not only for managing expectations, and setting appropriate policy goals, but also for designing conservation measures that can contribute to the minimization of lag times.

Nandita Basu, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Waterloo

Previous nitrogen reduction management efforts have proved unfruitful due to the amount of time nitrogen can be present in water – an effect known as nitrogen legacies – making past attempts seem futile due to low results.

However, the six-point strategy developed by the researchers aims to tackle these issues and offer solutions that can be implemented by governments, policymakers and the appropriate authorities. 

  • Quantify lag times and adjust conservation expectations
  • Discover ways to use legacy nitrogen as a resource
  • Spatial, localized targeting of watershed conservation measures
  • Couple field-scale and downstream measures to minimize lag times
  • Diversify monitoring to evaluate outcomes and inform adaptive management through tracking measures
  • Better incorporate evaluations of short- and long-term benefits into economic analyses

Managing Nitrogen Legacies

Managing nitrogen legacies is not a catchall approach as they depend on local factors such as climate, land management strategies and historical land use. These legacies have built up in anthropogenic landscapes over decades and pose a real threat to the diversity of ecosystems and human health.

While many conservation efforts are trying to turn back the clock on this problem, existing strategies are not diverse enough to keep up with the ongoing and increasing use of nitrogen in agriculture.

It is, therefore, vitally important to distinguish between different types of nitrogen accumulation as legacy nitrogen can build up in various environments, including ground water, soil, reservoirs, lake and stream sediments and even landfills.

Thus, building effective models that track nitrogen legacies and predict lag times will help policymakers in their efforts to improve overall water quality. 

Better spatial targeting can be achieved in a variety of ways, including better dissemination of information regarding geographically appropriate management practices and the use of strong economic incentives to strategically drive adoption of new practices in targeted locations. 

Nandita Basu, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Waterloo

The six-point strategy, as previously highlighted and detailed in the study, could present promising opportunities to develop both widespread and localized tactics that mitigate the overall environmental impact of nitrogen and help improve water quality.

References and Further Reading

Basu, N. and Van Meter, K., et al., (2022) Managing nitrogen legacies to accelerate water quality improvement. Nature Geoscience, [online] 15(2), pp.97-105. Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-021-00889-9

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David J. Cross

Written by

David J. Cross

David is an academic researcher and interdisciplinary artist. David's current research explores how science and technology, particularly the internet and artificial intelligence, can be put into practice to influence a new shift towards utopianism and the reemergent theory of the commons.

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