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Water Sci Technol. 2006;53(10):209-17.

Tracing nitrates and sulphates in river basins using isotope techniques.

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Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Calgary, 2500 University Drive NW, Calgary, Alberta, T2N-1N4, Canada.


The objective of this paper is to outline how stable isotope techniques can contribute to the elucidation of the sources and the fate of riverine nitrate and sulphate in watershed studies. The example used is the Oldman River Basin (OMRB), located in southern Alberta (Canada). Increasing sulphate concentrations and decreasing delta(34)S values along the flowpath of the Oldman River indicate that oxidation of pyrite in tills is a major source of riverine sulphate in the agriculturally used portion of the OMRB. Chemical and isotopic data showed that manure-derived nitrogen contributes significantly to the increase in nitrate concentrations in the Oldman River and its tributaries draining agricultural land. It is suggested that hydrological conditions control agricultural return flows to the surface water bodies in southern Alberta and impart significant seasonal variations on concentrations and isotopic compositions of riverine nitrate. Combining isotopic, chemical, and hydrometric data permitted us to estimate the relative contribution of major sources to the total solute fluxes. Hence, we submit that isotopic measurements can make an important contribution to the identification of nutrient and pollutant sources and to river basin management.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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