Isotope and microbiome data provide complementary information to identify natural nitrate attenuation processes in groundwater

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Natural attenuation processes alleviate the impact of fertilization practices on groundwater resources. Therefore, identifying the occurrence of denitrification has become a requirement for water quality management. Several approaches are useful for this purpose, such as isotopic and microbiological methods, each of them providing distinct but complementary information about denitrification reactions, attenuation rates and their occurrence in the aquifer. In this paper, we investigate the contribution of both approaches to describe denitrification in a consolidated rock aquifer (limestone and marls), with a porosity related to fracture networks located in the northeastern sector of the Osona basin (NE Spain). Isotopic methods indicated the origin of nitrate (fertilization using manure) and that denitrification occurred, reaching a reduction of near 25% of the nitrate mass in groundwater. The studied area could be divided in two zones with distinct agricultural pressures and, consequently, nitrate concentrations in groundwater. Denitrification occurred in both zones and at different levels, indicating that attenuation processes took place all along the whole hydrogeological unit, and that the observed levels could be attributed to a larger flow path or, in a minor extent, to mixing processes that mask the actual denitrification rates. Microbiological data showed a correlation between denitrifier genes and the isotopic composition. However, the groundwater microbiome and the distribution of denitrifying bacteria did not reveal a major influence on the denitrification level observed by isotopic methods. This focuses the interest of microbiological analysis to identify functional genes within the bacteria present in the aquifer ​
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