Meteorological Influences on Nitrogen Dynamics of a Coastal Onsite Wastewater Treatment System
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Meteorological Influences on Nitrogen Dynamics of a Coastal Onsite Wastewater Treatment System

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  • Alternative Title:
    J Environ Qual
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    On-site wastewater treatment systems (OWTS) can contribute nitrogen (N) to coastal waters. In coastal areas with shallow groundwater, OWTS are likely affected by meteorological events. However, the meteorological influences on temporal variability of N exports from OWTS are not well documented. Hydrogeological characterization and seasonal monitoring of wastewater and groundwater quality were conducted at a residence adjacent to the Pamlico River Estuary, North Carolina, during a 2-yr field study (October 2009-2011). Rainfall was elevated during the first study year, relative to the annual mean. In the second year, drought was followed by extreme precipitation from Hurricane Irene. Recent meteorological conditions influenced N speciation and concentrations in groundwater. Groundwater total dissolved nitrogen (TDN) beneath the OWTS drainfield was dominated by nitrate during the drought; during wetter periods, ammonium and organic N were common. Effective precipitation (precipitation [P] minus evapotranspiration [ET]) affected OWTS TDN exports because of its influence on groundwater recharge and discharge. Groundwater nitrate-N concentrations beneath the drainfield were typically higher than 10 mg/L when total biweekly precipitation was less than evapotranspiration (precipitation deficit: P < ET). Overall, groundwater TDN concentrations were elevated above background concentrations at distances >15 m downgradient of the drainfield. Although OWTS nitrate inputs caused elevated groundwater nitrate concentrations between the drainfield and the estuary, the majority of nitrate was attenuated via denitrification between the OWTS and 48 m to the estuary. However, DON originating from the OWTS was mobile and contributed to elevated TDN concentrations along the groundwater flowpath to the estuary.
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