High-frequency monitoring reveals nutrient sources and transport processes in an agriculture-dominated lowland water system

Many agriculture-dominated lowland water systems worldwide suffer from eutrophication caused by high nutrient loads. Insight in the hydrochemical functioning of embanked polder catchments is highly relevant for improving the water quality in such areas or for reducing export loads to downstream water bodies. This paper introduces new insights in nutrient sources and transport processes in a polder in the Netherlands situated below sea level using high-frequency monitoring technology at the outlet, where the water is pumped into a higher situated lake, combined with a low-frequency water quality monitoring programme at six locations within the drainage area. Seasonal trends and short-scale temporal dynamics in concentrations indicated that the NO3 concentration at the pumping station originated from N loss from agricultural lands. The NO3 loads appear as losses via tube drains after intensive rainfall events during the winter months due to preferential flow through the cracked clay soil. Transfer function-noise modelling of hourly NO3 concentrations reveals that a large part of the dynamics in NO3 concentrations during the winter months can be related to rainfall. The total phosphorus (TP) concentration and turbidity almost doubled during operation of the pumping station, which points to resuspension of particulate P from channel bed sediments induced by changes in water flow due to pumping. Rainfall events that caused peaks in NO3 concentrations did not results in TP concentration peaks. The rainfall induced and NO3 enriched quick interflow, may also be enriched in TP but retention of TP due to sedimentation of particulate P then results in the absence of rainfall induced TP concentration peaks. Increased TP concentrations associated with run-off events is only observed during a rainfall event at the end of a freeze–thaw cycle. All these observations suggest that the P retention potential of polder water systems is primarily due to the artificial pumping regime that buffers high flows. As the TP concentration is affected by operation of the pumping station, timing of sampling relative to the operating hours of the pumping station should be accounted for when calculating P export loads, determining trends in water quality, or when judging water quality status of polder water systems.