Section 1: Publication
Ilampooranan, I., Van Meter, K. J., & Basu, N. B.
A Race against Time: Modelling Time Lags in Watershed Response
Water Resources Research, 55
Ilampooranan, I., Van Meter, K. J., & Basu, N. B. (2019). A Race against Time: Modelling Time Lags in Watershed Response. Water Resources Research, 55. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018WR023815
Land use change and agricultural intensification have increased food production but at the cost of polluting surface and groundwater. Best management practices implemented to improve water quality have met with limited success. Such lack of success is increasingly attributed to legacy nutrient stores in the subsurface that may act as sources after reduction of external inputs. However, current water-quality models lack a framework to capture these legacy effects. Here we have modified the SWAT (Soil Water Assessment Tool) model to capture the effects of nitrogen (N) legacies on water quality under multiple land-management scenarios. Our new SWAT-LAG model includes (1) a modified carbon-nitrogen cycling module to capture the dynamics of soil N accumulation, and (2) a groundwater travel time distribution module to capture a range of subsurface travel times. Using a 502-km2 Iowa watershed as a case study, we found that between 1950 and 2016, 25% of the total watershed N surplus (N Deposition + Fertilizer + Manure + N Fixation − Crop N uptake) had accumulated within the root zone, 14% had accumulated in groundwater, while 27% was lost as riverine output, and 34% was denitrified. In future scenarios, a 100% reduction in fertilizer application led to a 79% reduction in stream N load, but the SWAT-LAG results suggest that it would take 84 years to achieve this reduction, in contrast to the 2 years predicted in the original SWAT model. The framework proposed here constitutes a first step toward modifying a widely used modeling approach to assess the effects of legacy N on the time required to achieve water-quality goals.
-A novel approach was developed to incorporate nitrate lag times in commonly used water-quality model for watershed management
-SWAT-LAG model showed that lag times to achieve Nutrient Task Force's recommended 60% nitrate load reduction can vary from 6 to 80 years
-Greater implementation of new management practices lead to shorter lag times to achieving water-quality goals
Plain Language Summary
For nearly a century, we have used nitrogen fertilizers to boost crop yields. However, the environmental effects of fertilizer use have been severe. Drinking water with high nitrate levels threatens human health, and high nitrogen loads in rivers lead to the creation of dead zones in coastal waters that make it impossible for fish or underwater plants to survive. Although we have tried for decades to reduce nitrogen levels in our waterways, the results have been disappointing. Scientists now believe that improvements may be slow to come because there are large amounts of nitrogen that have accumulated in soil and groundwater—legacy nitrogen—that continue to pollute our rivers even after farmers have reduced fertilizer use or improved management. However, policymakers still struggle to predict how long it will take to improve water quality. In our work, we have created a new model, Soil Water Assessment Tool-LAG, that allows us to predict the time lags caused by legacy nitrogen. Using an agricultural watershed in Iowa as a case study, we show that it can take as long as 80 years to see the full effects of new management practices and that these time lags must be considered when setting policy goals.