Effects of vegetation and glyphosate on denitrification in constructed wetlands - Feasibility test of technical scale simulation

The Aquisafe project aims at mitigation of diffuse pollution from agricultural sources to protect surface water resources. The first project phase (2007-2009) focused on the review of available information and preliminary tests regarding (i) most relevant contaminants, (ii) system-analytical tools to assess sources and pathways of diffuse agricultural pollution, (iii) the potential of mitigation zones, such as wetlands or riparian buffers, to reduce diffuse agricultural pollution of surface waters and (iv) experimental setups to simulate mitigation zones under controlled conditions. The present report deals with (iv) and evaluates the suitability of the technical scale experimental site at the UBA in Berlin, Marienfelde for simulating processes that impact the fate and transformation of nutrients in wetlands / riparian zones. A 3-month pilot investigation (Sep. to mid Nov. 2007) was conducted in order to assess the impact of vegetation on nitrate (NO3-) removal in slow-sand filters (SSFs) and identifying possible interference of glyphosate with N and C cycling processes in these systems. SSFs are engineered bio-reactors that can mitigate the transfer of a wide range of pollutants including nutrients and organic contaminants to water bodies. Two vertical-flow experimental SSFs (average area: 60 and 68 m2, depth: 0.8 and 1.2 m, respectively) at the UBA facilities in Berlin were used in this study: one unplanted and the other vegetated with Phragmites australis. The SSFs received water amended with nitrate (NO3-) and phosphate (PO4 -) without and with glyphosate (added for 2 weeks). Mineral N concentration at the mixing cell, SSF surface, 40 cm depth and at the SSF outlet was measured at least twice per week to calculate N removal rates. Physical water properties (pH, redox potential, temperature) and greenhouse gas emission (CO2, CH4 and N2O) were also monitored to gain insights into controlling processes. Results showed that N removal rates were several-fold higher in the vegetated than in the non-vegetated SSFs averaging 663 mg N m-2 d-1 (57 % of input) and 114 mg N m-2 d-1 (14 % of input), respectively. In both systems, most of the N removal occurred in the top 40 cm of the SSFs. Marked temporal variation in N removal rates was also detected with rates in general 3 times higher in late summer compared to mid/late autumn. In the latter period, a net release of N was observed in the non-vegetated SSF. The seasonal variation in N removal could be related to a lack of vegetation growth and thus plant N uptake, and may also reflect of the sensitivity of denitrification to climatic factors as suggested by strong (r2 > 0.77) linear relationships between weekly N removal rates and SSF water temperature. A clear impact of glyphosate addition on nitrate concentrations could not be observed. Denitrification, the process most responsible for the removal of nitrogen from waters and soils seems to be unaffected by the addition of glyphosate under the conditions in the experiment. The impact of glyphosate, if any, was probably much smaller compared to the strong influence of temperature on N dynamics in the SSFs. Difficulty of maintaining a constant concentration of glyphosate during dosing may have also contributed to this outcome. Nitrous oxide emission accounted for < 3 % of the total N removed was always lower in the vegetated (< 0.1 - 0.3 mg N2O-N m-2 d-1) than in the non-vegetated SSF (0.2 - 3.8 mg N2O-N m-2 d-1). Conversely, CH4 emission was always higher in the vegetated (range: +0.4 to +49.5 mg CH4-C m-2 d-1) than in the non-vegetated SSF (range: -2.1 to +1.32 mg CH4-C d-1). These results, in connection with much lower oxidation reduction potential readings in the vegetated filter, suggest that the reduction of N2O to N2 was important in the SSF systems and that N2 was the dominant N gas produced. Thus, N2 production must be quantified in order to establish N mass balance of SSF systems. The results show that technical-scale experiments can realistically simulate mitigation systems, while having control over contaminant loading, flow conditions and monitoring. Important lessons learnt for future applications are the following (i) Denitrifying conditions can be established in both SSF of the experimental site by adjusting to low flow conditions (0.23 m³/h) and dosing nitrate. (ii) Dosing of trace contaminants (in this case glyphosate) needs to be improved, but will remain difficult for the large amounts of water involved. The results underline the importance of measurements in the mixing cell. (iii) Since seasonal effects play an important role in mitigation zone performance, any experiments need to be done in parallel, rather than in succession to be able to compare the results.

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