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An isotope study of the sources of nitrate in Malta’s groundwater

By Tim H.E. Heaton, Marianne E. Stuart, Manuel Sapiano and Miriam Micallef Sultana


Levels of nitrate in Malta’s groundwater are high. Median concentrations in the main sea-level aquifers of Malta and Gozo are 14 and 10 mg NO3–N L−1, respectively, and even higher in the younger groundwaters of the perched aquifers on Malta (37 mg NO3–N L−1). The wide variations in groundwater nitrate concentration are not due to denitrification, as 15N/14N and 18O/16O analyses of 47 samples from the three aquifer types found clear evidence for this process in only one sample. 90% of the groundwater nitrate samples had δ18O values in the range +3.1 to +6.1‰, which correspond exactly to those expected for nitrate formed by microbial processes in the presence of Maltese surficial waters (δ18O of H2O typically −5.3 to −4.3‰). The δ15N values of these groundwater nitrate samples, +7.7 to +11.7‰, were compared with those of a wide variety of potential nitrate sources in Malta (fertilizers, sewage, manure and soils). The closest correspondence was found for the organic N in cultivated soils (+6.0 to +11.2‰). These relatively high δ15N values for soils may reflect greater fluxes of N from soils with a low C/N ratio and a long history of cultivation. While the isotope data support soil nitrification as the source for nitrate in the groundwaters, they do not rule out direct leaching of manure-derived nitrate as a source.\ud \u

Publisher: Elsevier
Year: 2012
DOI identifier: 10.1016/j.jhydrol.2011.10.037
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