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Woodchip denitrification wall technology trialled in a shallow alluvial gravel aquifer.

Abstract

Woodchip denitrification walls are a tried and tested groundwater nitrate remediation concept in shallow sandy aquifer conditions. There are however no published case studies of them having been applied in heterogeneous, fast-flowing gravel aquifers. Such a pilot study is being made in a shallow alluvial gravel aquifer on the Canterbury Plains, New Zealand, as part of an assessment of whether denitrification walls represent a viable edge-of-field nitrate mitigation option for the New Zealand hydrological landscape. Hydrogeological conditions at the field study site were characterised using a suite of investigative methods, the results from which informed design and placement of an experimental woodchip denitrification wall that was installed in November 2018. The average specific flux in the target gravel aquifer is estimated at 2.7 m/d, and 3.1 m/d through the woodchip wall itself, owing to its hydraulic efficiency. These groundwater fluxes are significantly higher than conditions reported for pre-existing denitrification wall case-studies. Monitoring of the groundwater chemistry over the first year of the denitrification woodchip wall's operational life has shown how the woodchip initially leached labile dissolved organic carbon and created a redox plume in which methanogenic conditions existed. Even though dissolved organic carbon concentrations have restored to background levels, the woodchip wall remains effective at nitrate reduction. The measured nitrate removal rate of between 4.2 and 5.4 g N removed/m3 wall/d is higher than what had previously been predicted from controlled lab-scale studies of the wall media and ranks towards the higher end of published removal rates for denitrification walls. Whilst there is direct evidence that heterotrophic denitrification is contributing to the observed nitrate removal, on the basis of chemical indicators, it is assumed other reactive process, such as dissimilatory reduction to ammonia, anammox, and possibly nitrate-reducing Fe(II)-oxidising reduction reactions may also be contributing to the overall removal of nitrogen in the system. Indications are the woodchip wall is enhancing emission of methane gas, albeit at rates less than what is typically reported for constructed wetlands that are an alternative nitrate-remediation option. Emission of the more potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide from the woodchip denitrification wall has so far been immeasurably low. Longer-term study of the woodchip denitrification wall is continuing.

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