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Development of a groundwater contamination index based on the agricultural hazard and aquifer vulnerability: Application to Portugal

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  • João Serra, University of Lisbon
  • ,
  • Maria do Rosário Cameira, University of Lisbon
  • ,
  • Cláudia M.d.S. Cordovil, University of Lisbon
  • ,
  • Nicholas J. Hutchings

Reducing nitrate leaching may not result in a significant improvement of groundwater quality. The amount of nitrate reaching groundwater depends not only on the hazard related to agricultural activities but also on-site specific groundwater vulnerability. Using national databases and other compiled datasets, the agricultural hazard was calculated as the ratio of (i) the nitrate leached estimated from the N surplus, and (ii) the water surplus, a proxy of the percolating water below the root zone. By combining the hazard with a multi-parameter groundwater vulnerability, a spatially explicit groundwater contamination risk, developed for mainland Portugal, was computed for 1999 and 2009. Results show an increase from 8,800 to 82,679 ha of the territory rated with a very high contamination risk. The priority areas were successfully screened by the Index, coinciding with the current Vulnerable Zones, although additional hotspots were detected in southern Portugal. Percolation, including both irrigation activity and precipitation, was found to be a key driver for the groundwater contamination risk due to its opposite effects in the hazard and in the vulnerability. Reducing nitrogen leaching may be insufficient to reduce the risk of nitrate contamination if there is a relatively larger reduction in precipitation. This index is particularly useful when applied to contrasting situations of vulnerability and hazard, which require distinct mitigation measures to mitigate groundwater contamination.

Original languageEnglish
Article number145032
JournalScience of the total Environment
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2021 Elsevier B.V.

    Research areas

  • Agricultural contamination, Gross nitrogen balance, Groundwater pollution, Groundwater vulnerability, Nitrate leaching, Risk index

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