Quantifying Hotspots of Nitrate and Dissolved Phosphorus Losses from Cropped Depressions and Impacts at the Catchment Scale

Oct 2018


Improving understanding of the spatial distribution of “hotspots” for nitrate and phosphorus loading to surface water provides a key opportunity for informing strategic management interventions and their potential improvements to water quality. Where relatively small portions of the landscape contribute disproportionately to nutrient losses, targeting these hotspots could provide disproportionate nutrient reductions with lower overall impact to farm operations. Drained and cropped depressions (former prairie pothole wetlands) that experience intermittent flooding represent likely hotspots for nutrient losses that contribute disproportionately to nitrate and phosphorus loads.


This project will quantify the overall importance of depressions by combining new in-field measurements with ongoing measurements of nutrient loads strategically conducted at the outlets of tile mains. This will allow researchers to calculate the relative and absolute contribution of cropped depressions to the total loads exported from a given catchment, providing a template to assess gains from implementing best management practices on these landscape features.


Sampling will be done within two catchments in the Des Moines lobe that are already instrumented for monitoring close-interval nitrogen and phosphorus loads at catchment outlets. Lysimeters will be deployed over three time periods to assess seasonal relationships between topographic position and nutrient loads. Using measured values of N and P infiltration as a function of topographic position in these basins, researchers will extrapolate the cumulative impact of depressions on total loads measured at the catchment outlet.

Project Updates

December 2019

Resin lysimeters had been installed in agricultural fields under corn/soybean cultivation to assess how soluble nutrient losses varied along gradients from uplands to poorly drained depressional soils. The first batch of lysimeters sampled in May 2019 reflect nutrient losses over the previous (2018) growing season. Preliminary analyses show that nitrate losses were consistently high across upland-depression gradients at all sites. Losses from depressions exceeded uplands at one site. Considering that the studied depressions had complete crop mortality due to sustained ponding, the high rates of nitrate loss emphasize the poor nitrogen use efficiency of these landscape positions. Analyses of phosphorus are ongoing. In spring 2020, the next batch of lysimeters will be harvested. These span an even broader array of sites with upland/depression topographic gradients, where some sites were planted with cover crops.

September 2019

To quantify the impacts of topographic depressions on losses of nitrate and dissolved phosphorus, researchers installed resin lysimeters across transects spanning depressions to adjacent uplands in two catchments on the Des Moines lobe. A total of 390 lysimeters were installed (in triplicate at each of 10 plots along each of 13 transects). The lysimeters were constructed and prepared throughout the winter of 2018-19 and installed (buried at 35 cm depth) in the field, May-June 2019. The lysimeters will be harvested, extracted and analyzed a year later to measure the integrated nutrient loads.

Lead researcher Steven Hall presented an Iowa Learning Farms webinar on material related to this project in Fall 2018.

December 2018

This is a new project where funds became available in August. Two undergraduate technicians were hired for the project, Participation of willing farmers in our study watersheds was secured. Undergraduate technicians now have constructed the resin lysimeters that will be deployed at field sites to measure nitrate and phosphate leaching across topographic gradients (depressions to uplands) under multiple cropping system types. Lysimeters will be deployed early in 2019.