Application of nitrogen and boron isotopes for tracing sources of anthropogenic contamination in Monforte-Alter do Chão aquifer system, Portugal

  • P. Fernandes
  • M. R. CarvalhoEmail author
  • M. C. Silva
  • A. Rebelo
  • J. Zeferino
Original Article


The Monforte-Alter do Chão aquifer system represents one of the main water resources in Alentejo region (SW Portugal), and is located in an area of intensive agriculture and cattle breeding. The groundwater shows varied chemical composition, reflecting fast chemical changes associated with the water–rock interaction, with waters of Ca–HCO3, Na/Ca–HCO3, and Na–HCO3 facies. Some of the waters have strong evidence of nitrogen contamination with nitrate concentrations above 50 mg/l. The implementation of the European Nitrates Directive and the Water Framework Directive has led to the designation of large areas as Nitrate Vulnerable Zones, for being at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution: groundwater containing or that could contain more than 50 mg/l of nitrates. Corrective measures taken to reverse the trend can only be established when the contaminant source is known. In this study, the isotopic compositions of NO315N and δ18O) and B (δ11B) were used to identify the sources of the nitrogen contamination. Despite the occurrence of some evaporation processes, the δ15N and δ18O isotopes allowed to distinguish two groups of waters with different sources of nitrates, fertilizers, and soils or manure and domestic effluents. The analysis of the NO3 source based on δ11B isotope ratio pointed out contamination by pig farms effluents. However, considering the land occupation and the strong livestock activities in the area, it is possible that the adsorption of 11B isotopes onto clays or the high pH of the groundwater could explain the high δ11B values.


Nitrate source N, O, and B isotopes Monforte-Alter do Chão aquifer system 



The authors are grateful for the financial support of the national agency for environmental protection—Agência Portuguesa do Ambiente—APA, I.P., and Fundação Ciência e Tecnologia—FCT project reference UID/GEO/50019/2013—Instituto Dom Luiz. Authors acknowledge the fruitful revision and contribution of the two anonymous reviewers.


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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Departamento de Geologia, Faculdade de CiênciasUniversidade de LisboaLisbonPortugal
  2. 2.Instituto D. Luiz, Faculdade de CiênciasUniversidade de LisboaLisbonPortugal

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