, Volume 98, Issue 1–3, pp 75–87 | Cite as

Natural attenuation of nitrogen in groundwater discharging through a sandy beach



This paper presents an uncomplicated approach to improve estimates of groundwater nutrient load to a marine embayment. A two-dimensional chemical profile of shallow groundwater was analysed in a sandy beach in three seasons (early summer, late summer and mid winter) and an adjusted estimate of groundwater nutrient discharge was derived that accounts for a complex biogeochemical environment and non-conservative behaviour of nutrients in the pre-discharge beach groundwater. The study was conducted at Cockburn Sound, Western Australia, where there has been significant groundwater contamination and associated marine ecological degradation. Losses in nitrogen and increases in phosphorus were observed along the discharge pathway beyond that expected from mixing with marine water, and the changes were attributed to chemically and biologically mediated reactions. A slow groundwater velocity (0.14–0.18 m day−1), high organic carbon (TOC = 0.35–4.9 mmol l−1, DOC = 0.28–4.6 mmol l−1) and low to sub-oxic conditions (DO = 0.4–24% saturation) were deemed suitable for chemically and biologically mediated reactions to occur and subsequently alter regional estimates of groundwater nutrient concentration. Accounting for this environment, groundwater loads were calculated that were 1–2 orders of magnitude less than previous regional-based estimates: 0.4–13 kg NO x  day−1, 0.2–24 kg NH4 + day−1 and 0.004–0.8 kg FRP day−1. This paper applies knowledge of recent research and presents scope to marine managers or modellers to account for groundwater inputs to the marine environment.


Groundwater nitrogen Permeable sand Coastal aquifer Submarine groundwater discharge 



We thank Dr. Rod Lukatelich, Dr David Reynolds, Dr. Ian Eliot, and Ms Ailbhe Travis for site-related and logistical support, and appreciate the field assistance of Deb Read and Nikki Grieve. The manuscript benefited from comments by Dr. Anas Ghadouni, UWA. This study was supported by grants from CSIRO SRFME, Kwinana Industries Council and the Centre for Groundwater Studies. The constructive comments of four anonymous reviewers are appreciated, as are those provided by Dr M. Charette, Dr A. Payton and Dr J. Turner on this manuscript in its form within a PhD thesis. This paper is School of Environmental Systems Engineering report ED1789AL.


  1. Andersen MS, Baron L, Gudbjerg J, Gregersend J, Chapellier D, Jakobsen R, Postma D (2007) Discharge of nitrate-containing groundwater into a coastal marine environment. J Hydrol 336:98–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Appleyard S (1994) The discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus from groundwater into Cockburn Sound, Perth, Metropolitan region. Geological Survey of Western Australia hydrogeology report 1994/39, PerthGoogle Scholar
  3. Bureau of Meteorology (2005) Weather station data. cited Sep 2005. Australian Government site
  4. Burnett WC, Dulaiova H (2003) Estimating the dynamics of groundwater input into the coastal zone via continuous radon-222 measurements. J Environ Radioact 69:21–35CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Chanton JP, Burnett WC, Dulaiova H, Corbett DR, Taniguchi M (2003) Seepage rate variability in Florida Bay driven by Atlantic tidal height. Biogeochem 66:187–202CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Charette MA, Sholkovitz ER (2002) Oxidative precipitation of groundwaterderived ferrous iron in the subterranean estuary of a coastal bay. Geophy Res Lett 29. doi: 10.1029/12001GLO145I2
  7. Charette MA, Sholkovitz ER (2006) Trace element cycling in a subterranean estuary: part 2. Geochemistry of the pore water. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 70:811–826CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Charette MA, Buesseler KO, Andrews JE (2001) Utility of radium isotopes for evaluating the input and transport of groundwater-derived nitrogen to a Cape Cod estuary. Limnol Oceanog 46:465–470Google Scholar
  9. Charette MA, Splivallo R, Herbold C, Bollinger MS, Moore WS (2003) Salt marsh submarine groundwater discharge as traced by radium isotopes. Mar Chem 84:113–121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Charette MA, Sholkovitz ER, Hansel C (2005) Trace element cycling in a subterranean estuary: part 1. Geochemistry of the permeable sediments. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 69:2095–2109CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Corbett DR, Chanton J, Burnett W, Dillon K, Rutkowski C, Fourqurean JW (1999) Patterns of groundwater discharge in Florida Bay. Limnol Oceanog 44:1045–1055Google Scholar
  12. Corbett DR, Kump L, Dillon K, Burnett W, Chanton J (2000) Fate of wastewater-borne nutrients under low discharge conditions in the subsurface of the Florida Keys, USA. Mar Chem 69:99–115CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. D’Adamo N, Mills DA (1995) Field measurements and baroclinic modelling of vertical mixing and exchange during Autumn in Cockburn Sound and adjacent waters. Western Australia Department of Environmental Protection, Perth, Western Australia, 6000, technical series no. 71Google Scholar
  14. Department of Environment (2004) Perth groundwater atlas, 2nd edn. Western Australian Department of Environment, hydrogeology report no. 202, Perth, AustraliaGoogle Scholar
  15. Destouni G, Prieto C (2003) On the possibility for generic modeling of submarine groundwater discharge. Biogeochem 66:171–186CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Drever JI (1982) The geochemistry of natural waters: surface and groundwater environments. Prentice-Hall, New JerseyGoogle Scholar
  17. Duarte CM (2002) The future of seagrass meadows. Environ Cons 29:192–206Google Scholar
  18. Fetter CW (1994) Applied hydrogeology. Prentice Hall, New JerseyGoogle Scholar
  19. Gibbs RJ, Matthews MD, Link DA (1971) The relationship between sphere size and settling velocity. J Sediment Petrol 41:7–18Google Scholar
  20. Giblin AE, Gaines AG (1990) Nitrogen inputs to a marine embayment: the importance of groundwater. Biogeochem 10:309–328CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Gobler CJ, Boneillo GE (2003) Impacts of anthropogenically influenced groundwater seepage on water chemistry and phytoplankton dynamics within a coastal marine system. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 255:101–114CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Hays RL, Ullman WJ (2007) Direct determination of total and fresh groundwater discharge and nutrient loads from a sandy beachface at low tide (Cape Henlopen, Delaware). Limnol Oceanogr 52:240­-247CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Herrera-Silveira JA, Medina-Gomex I, Colli R (2002) Trophic statues based on nutrient concentration scales and primary producers community of tropical coastal lagoons influenced by groundwater discharges. Hydrobiologia 475(476):91–98CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Johannes RE (1980) The ecological significance of the submarine discharge of groundwater. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 3:365–373CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Johnson KS (1982) Determination of phosphate in seawater by flow injection analysis with injection of reagent. Anal Chem 54:1185–1187CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Johnson KS (1983) Determination of nitrate and nitrite in seawater by flow injection analysis with injection of reagent. Limnol Oceanog 28:1260–1266CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kendrick GA, Aylward MJ, Hegge BJ, Cambridge ML, Hillman K, Wyllie A, Lord DA (2002) Changes in seagrass coverage in Cockburn Sound, Western Australia between 1967 and 1999. Aquat Bot 73:75–87CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Korom SF (1992) Natural denitrification in the saturated zone: a review. Water Resour Res 28:1657–1668CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Kroeger K, Charette M (2008) Nitrogen biogeochemistry of submarine groundwater discharge. Limnol Oceanog 53:1025–1039Google Scholar
  30. Lourey MJ, Dunn JR, Waring J (2006) A mixed-layer nutrient climatology of Leeuwin Current and Western Australian shelf waters: seasonal nutrient dynamics and biomass. J Marine Syst 59:25–51CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Loveless AM, Oldham CE, Hancock GJ (2008) Radium isotopes reveal seasonal groundwater inputs to Cockburn Sound, a marine embayment in Western Australia. J Hydrol 351:203–217CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Michael HA, Lubetsky JS, Harvey CF (2003) Characterizing submarine groundwater discharge: a seepage meter study in Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts. Geophys Res Let 30:1297CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Michael HA, Mulligan AE, Harvey CF (2005) Seasonal oscillations in water exchange between aquifers and the coastal ocean. Nature 436:1145–1148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Moore WS (1996) Large groundwater inputs to coastal waters revealed by 226Ra enrichments. Nature 380:612­-614CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Moore WS (2003) Sources and fluxes of submarine groundwater discharge delineated by radium isotopes. Biogeochem 66:75–93CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Ocampo CJ, Oldham CE, Sivapalan M (2006) Nitrate attenuation in agricultural catchments: shifting balances between transport and reaction. Water Resour Res 42:W01408Google Scholar
  37. Pearce A, Helleren S, Marinelli M (2000) Review of productivity levels of Western Australian coastal and estuarine waters for mariculture planning purposes. Fisheries Research Division research report no. 123, Department of Fisheries Western Australia, p 67Google Scholar
  38. Robinson C, Gibbes B, Carey H, Li L (2007a) Salt-freshwater dynamics in a subterranean estuary over a spring-neap tidal cycle. J Geophys Res 112:C09007CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Robinson C, Li L, Prommer H (2007b) Tide-induced recirculation across the aquifer–ocean interface. Water Resour Res 43:W07428CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Santos IR, Burnett WC, Chanton J, Mwashote B, Suryaputra IG, Dittmar T (2008) Nutrient biogeochemistry in a Gulf of Mexico subterranean estuary and groundwater-derived fluxes to the coastal ocean. Limnol Oceanog 53:705–718Google Scholar
  41. Simpson CJ (ed) (1996) Southern metropolitan coastal waters study, 1991–1994. Department of Environmental Protection report 17, Perth, Western Australia, p 288Google Scholar
  42. Slomp CP, Van Cappellen P (2004) Nutrient inputs to the coastal ocean through submarine groundwater discharge: controls and potential impact. J Hydrol 295:64–86CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Smith AJ, Nield SP (2003) Groundwater discharge from the superficial aquifer into Cockburn Sound Western Australia: estimation by inshore water balance. Biogeochem 66:125–144CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Smith AJ, Turner JV, Herne DE, Hick WP (2003) Quantifying submarine groundwater discharge and nutrient discharge into Cockburn Sound Western Australia, Technical report no. 01/03, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Floreat, Western Australia, p 185Google Scholar
  45. Spiteri C, Slomp CP, Charette MA, Tuncay K, Meile C (2008a) Flow and nutrient dynamics in a subterranean estuary (Waquoit Bay, MA, USA): field data and reactive transport modelling. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 72:3398–3412CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Spiteri C, Slomp CP, Tuncay K, Meile C (2008b) Modeling biogeochemical processes in subterranean estuaries: effect of flow dynamics and redox conditions on submarine groundwater discharge of nutrients. Water Resour Res 44:W02430CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Suzumura M, Ueda S, Sumi E (2000) Control of phosphate concentration through adsorption and desorption processes in groundwater and seawater mixing at sandy beaches in Tokyo Bay, Japan. J Oceanog 56:667–673CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Switala K (1993) Determination of ammonia by flow injection analysis colorimetry dialysis. Latchet Instruments, MilwaukeeGoogle Scholar
  49. Taniguchi M, Burnett WC, Cable JE, Turner JV (2002) Investigation of submarine groundwater discharge. Hydrol Process 16:2115–2129CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Turner I, Coates B, Acworth RI (1997) Tides, waves and the super-elevation of groundwater at the coast. J Coast Res 13:46–60Google Scholar
  51. Ullman WJ, Chang B, Miller DC, Madsen JA (2003) Groundwater mixing, nutrient diagenesis, and discharge across a sandy beachface, Cape Henlopen, Delaware, USA. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 57:539–552CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Valderrama J (1981) The simultaneous analysis of total nitrogen and total phosphorus in natural waters. Mar Chem 10:109–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Water ResearchUniversity of Western AustraliaMelbourneAustralia
  2. 2.School of Environmental Systems EngineeringUniversity of Western AustraliaCrawleyAustralia

Personalised recommendations