EKU Faculty and Staff Scholarship

Nutrient Contamination from Non-point Sources: Dissolved Nitrate and Ammonium in Surface and Subsurface Waters at EKU Meadowbrook Farm, Madison County, Kentucky

Reid E. Buskirk, Eastern Kentucky University
Walter S. Borowski, Eastern Kentucky University

Undergraduate thesis


Agricultural activities often contaminate watersheds with excess nutrients leading to poor water quality and eutrophication. Eastern Kentucky University’s Meadowbrook Farm, contributes dissolved nitrogen into the Muddy Creek watershed. To assess the concentrations of dissolved nitrogen compounds, we sampled waters draining from the Farm as springs, runoff, and subsurface pipe drainage as well as Muddy Creek on six days from May to August 2016 under a variety of weather conditions. We measured dissolved nitrate (NO­3-) and ammonium (NH4+) using standard colorimetric methods and spectrophotometry with an accuracy of ~0.1 mg/L.

Nitrate was the dominant nutrient contaminant, whereas ammonium was often absent in water samples. Nitrate levels were usually/L in surface waters. Springs and some tributaries exhibited the largest nitrate values generally ranging from 7.0 to 14.3 mg/L. Ammonium displayed sporadic concentration spikes between 2.0 and 4.3 mg/L.

Dissolved nitrogen concentrations responded to rainfall. We saw a general decrease of nitrogen concentration during dry periods, especially in Muddy Creek and an increase in nitrogen concentration under wetter conditions. Springs maintained high nitrogen concentrations regardless of different rainfall conditions.

We compared our nitrogen measurements from Meadowbrook Farm to national values. For surface waters, the median nitrate concentration was 2.7 mg/L, lower than the national median (3.8 mg/L), whereas ammonium values were 0.2 mg/L, higher than the national median (0.1 mg/L). In groundwater, we found the median nitrate concentration was 3.9 mg/L, higher than the national median (3.4 mg/L), whereas the median ammonium concentration was 0.05 mg/L, higher than the national median (0.02 mg/L).