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Addressing Nitrate in California’s Drinking Water Technical Report 5

Aaron King, Vivian B. Jensen, Thomas Harter, Graham E. Fogg, Dylan Boyle | July 31st, 2012

This report explores methods and costs of remediation of groundwater nitrate contamination in the Tulare Lake Basin and Salinas Valley. Groundwater cleanup, or remediation, is one of the most difficult actions in the environmental sciences, even when done on the scale of a small contaminant plume (1000s of cubic meters). Remediation of entire groundwater basins has never been attempted at the scale and depths of the Salinas Valley and Tulare Lake Basin, on the order of billions of cubic meters.

This analysis shows that direct remediation to remove nitrate from large groundwater basins is extremely costly and not technically feasible. In situ remediation, though technologically infeasible as a regional remedy, is appropriate in certain areas of shallow groundwater with high contaminant levels. Traditional pump and treat (ex situ) methods are too slow to produce results on the regional scale in an acceptable time frame, prohibitively expensive, and impractical to implement.

A novel form of pump-and-treat remediation is possible in the study area, but not yet widely practiced. By monitoring the nitrogen content of pumped irrigation water, and taking that ambient nutrient source into account when calculating additive fertilizer amounts, farmers can reduce the amount of nitrogen input to the aquifer. Such an approach is not unlike phytoremediation and is herein called “pump-and fertilize.”

Pump-and-fertilize is part of an effective nutrient management program. Due to the nature of irrigation with groundwater, it is as much a source reduction method as it is a form of groundwater remediation. Hot spot and pump-and-fertilize remediation alone will not solve the problem of groundwater nitrate contamination. A new approach is needed that combines regional groundwater and nitrogen management strategies. This approach would include monitoring, source reduction, maximization of clean groundwater recharge across agricultural landscapes, pump-and-fertilize, and in situ treatment targeted at shallow, high-concentration plumes to place regional water quality on a trajectory toward improvement. Modeling and monitoring of regional groundwater quality are integral to an effective long-term management strategy.


agricultural drainage, Central Valley, coastal aquifers, drinking water, groundwater contamination, Groundwater Exchange, nitrates, water quality

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