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Risk of water contamination by nitrogen in Canada as estimated by the IROWC-N model

De Jong, R., Drury, C.F., Yang, J.Y., Campbell, C.A. (2009). Risk of water contamination by nitrogen in Canada as estimated by the IROWC-N model, 90(10), 3169-3181.


With increasing amounts of nitrogen (N) being added to farmland in the form of fertilizer and manure to optimize crop yields, and more broadly, to meet the growing demands for food, feed and energy, there are public concerns regarding its possible negative impact on the environment. An optimal balance between N requirements for production versus efficient N use is required, so as to minimize N losses from the agricultural system. An agri-environmental indicator i.e., the Indicator of the Risk of Water Contamination by Nitrogen (IROWC-N) was developed to assess the risk of N moving from agricultural areas into groundwater and/or nearby surface water bodies. The indicator linked the quantity of mineral nitrogen remaining in the soil at harvest, i.e., the Residual Soil Nitrogen (RSN) indicator, and the subsequent climatic conditions during the winter period. The results were assessed in terms of nitrate lost through leaching and nitrate concentration in the drainage water, expressed in five IROWC-N risk classes. Unlike previous versions of the indicator, the current model provided a more complete description of the soil-water balance, including the calculation of rainfall interception by crops, surface runoff, actual evapotranspiration and soil-water contents. Consequently, the current IROWC-N estimates differed markedly from those obtained previously. Between 1981 and 2006, the risk of water contamination by N in Canada was small, and reflected what was happening in the three Prairie provinces where 85% of Canada's farmland is located. However, the aggregated IROWC-N index, which is a combination of all five risk classes, increased steadily by 2.3% per year, from 6.7 in 1981 to 10.6 in 2006. The proportion of farmland in the very low IROWC-N risk class decreased from 88 to 78%; correspondingly, the proportion in the low risk class increased from 2 to 12%. The proportion of farmland in the moderate-, high- and very high-risk classes changed by less than 3% over time. The trends in IROWC-N in the Atlantic provinces were significantly worse than the national trend; for example, in Atlantic Canada, the aggregated IROWC-N index tripled from 27.8 in 1981 to 87.5 in 2006. Increases in fertilizer use (except in British Columbia), increases in livestock numbers in Manitoba and the Atlantic provinces, and an increase in legume crop acreage were the main factors that contributed to the increase in IROWC-N estimates. Climatic factors were also involved, as droughts reduced yields, N uptake and N leaching in many regions of Canada in 2001. Crown Copyright © 2009.

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