Deborah Comstock Curbing poor water quality through nitrogen management

Deborah J. Comstock

Nitrogen is not a glamorous topic, but it is essential to plant and food growth. Without it, crops would be vulnerable in climate changes, like drought or excessive rains, and not produce the quantity of food production needed to feed this country and the world .

But nitrogen and, specifically, the use of commercial fertilizers which contain nitrogen is a controversial issue. This is because too much nitrogen in soils cause unwanted consequences, like runoff into streams, groundwaters and large waterways causing poor water quality, or water so polluted it is not sustainable for human consumption.

Fertilizer used in agriculture is a significant source of nitrogen in soils. However, nitrogen is also atmospheric, and additional amounts come from animal waste, sewage and organic matter. It is removed from soils by crops, gaseous loss, runoff, erosion and leaching. The nitrogen needs to be broken down, a process called “mineralization” before the plant can use the necessary nitrogen. The process or chemistry of nitrogen goes something like this:

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