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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 150:217-228 (1997)  -  doi:10.3354/meps150217

High nitrate, muddy estuaries as nitrogen sinks: the nitrogen budget of the River Colne estuary (United Kingdom)

Ogilvie B, Nedwell DB, Harrison RM, Robinson A, Sage A

The muddy estuary of the River Colne, east coast UK, is hypernutrified, with strong gradients of NO3- and NH4+ up the estuary due to inputs from the river and sewage treatment works. There were no significant transformations of nitrogen detected in the water column. In the sandy sediment at the mouth of the estuary nitrification occurred with NO3- export from the sediment, but the muddy sediments higher up the estuary were large sinks for NO3- and major sites of denitrification. The flux of NO3- into the sediment at these sites was correlated with the water column NO3- concentration, and there was a large capacity for the sediments to respond to increases in the water column NO3- concentration. A seasonal cycle occurred with maximum denitrification during early winter, when water column NO3- was greatest and low temperatures favoured denitrification over NO3- ammonification. Highest unit area rates of denitrification were measured by acetylene inhibition at the uppermost site in the estuary, but when allowance was made for the area of sediment surface in each sector the middle reaches of the estuary were more significant to the estuarine nitrogen budget. Approximately 50% of the NO3- flux through the estuary was denitrified during 1993-1994. In addition, measurements of denitrification by the 15NO3- isotope pairing technique suggested that coupled nitrification-denitrification within the sediment was also important, and when this was also allowed for the sediments removed by denitrification between 18 and 27% of the total nitrogen flux through the estuary. There was some question, however, of whether the coupled nitrification-denitrification was overestimated if the anammox reaction was occurring in the highly organic, high NO3- sediments at the river end of the estuary. It is concluded that in these turbid, muddy estuaries the sediments are not only major attenuators of the flux of NO3-, but are also very effective traps for organically bound nitrogen. This suggests that the loads of nitrogen through these estuaries to the North Sea, which are usually derived from river gauging above the high tide mark, significantly overestimate the real load as they do not take into account attenuation of nitrogen flux within the estuary. While this attenuation may decrease the nitrogen loads, it implies that any environmental impact in coastal waters may be the result of much lower loads of nitrogen than hitherto assumed.

Estuaries · Eutrophication · Denitrification

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