Articles | Volume 9, issue 8
Research article
23 Aug 2012
Research article |  | 23 Aug 2012

Regional analysis of groundwater nitrate concentrations and trends in Denmark in regard to agricultural influence

B. Hansen, T. Dalgaard, L. Thorling, B. Sørensen, and M. Erlandsen

Abstract. The act of balancing between an intensive agriculture with a high potential for nitrate pollution and a drinking water supply almost entirely based on groundwater is a challenge faced by Denmark and similar regions around the globe. Since the 1980s, regulations implemented by Danish farmers have succeeded in optimizing the N (nitrogen) management at farm level. As a result, the upward agricultural N surplus trend has been reversed, and the N surplus has reduced by 30–55% from 1980 to 2007 depending on region. The reduction in the N surplus served to reduce the losses of N from agriculture, with documented positive effects on nature and the environment in Denmark. In groundwater, the upward trend in nitrate concentrations was reversed around 1980, and a larger number of downward nitrate trends were seen in the youngest groundwater compared with the oldest groundwater. However, on average, approximately 48% of the oxic monitored groundwater has nitrate concentrations above the groundwater and drinking water standards of 50 mg l−1. Furthermore, trend analyses show that 33% of all the monitored groundwater has upward nitrate trends, while only 18% of the youngest groundwater has upward nitrate trends according to data sampled from 1988–2009. A regional analysis shows a correlation between a high level of N surplus in agriculture, high concentrations of nitrate in groundwater and the largest number of downward nitrate trends in groundwater in the livestock-dense northern and western parts of Denmark compared with the southeastern regions with lower livestock densities. These results indicate that the livestock farms dominating in northern and western parts of Denmark have achieved the largest reductions in N surpluses. Groundwater recharge age determinations allow comparison of long-term changes in N surplus in agriculture with changes in oxic groundwater quality. The presented data analysis is based on groundwater recharged from 1952–2003, but sampled from 1988–2009. Repetition of the nitrate trend analyses at five-year intervals using dating of the groundwater recharged in the coming years and a longer time series of the nitrate analyses can reveal the evolution in nitrate leaching from Danish agriculture during the past 10 yr. Similar analyses can be carried out to compare with other regions internationally.

Final-revised paper