Nitrate attenuation in groundwater: A review of biogeochemical controlling processes

Michael Rivett, S Buss, P Morgan, J Smith, C Bemment

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

760 Citations (Scopus)


Biogeochemical processes controlling nitrate attenuation in aquifers are critically reviewed. Air understanding of the fate of nitrate in groundwater is vital for managing risks associated with nitrate pollution, and to safeguard groundwater supplies and groundwater-dependent surface waters. Denitrification is focused upon as the dominant nitrate attenuation process in groundwater. As denitrifying bacteria are essentially ubiquitous in the subsurface, the critical limiting factors are oxygen and electron donor concentration and availability. Variability in other environmental conditions such as nitrate concentration, nutrient availability, pH, temperature, presence of toxins and microbial acclimation appears to be less important, exerting only secondary influences on denitrification rates. Other nitrate depletion mechanisms such as dissimilatory nitrate reduction to ammonium and assimilation of nitrate into microbial biomass are unlikely to be important in most subsurface settings relative to denitrification. Further research is recommended to improve current understanding on the influence of organic carbon, sulphur and iron electron donors, physical restrictions on microbial activity in dual porosity aquifers, influences of environmental condition (e.g. pH in poorly buffered environments and salinity in coastal or salinized soil settings), co-contaminant influences (particularly the contrasting inhibitory and electron donor influences of pesticides) and improved quantification of denitrification rates in the laboratory and field. (C) 2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4215-4232
Number of pages18
JournalWater Research
Issue number16
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2008


  • Nitrates Directive
  • Nitrate
  • Denitrification
  • Water Framework Directive
  • Groundwater
  • Natural attenuation


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