Preferential transport of nitrate to a tile drain in an intermittent-flood-irrigated field: Model development and experimental evaluation Academic Article uri icon


  • A comprehensive field experiment was conducted near Las Nutrias, New Mexico, to study field-scale flow and transport in the vadose zone. The field data were analyzed in terms of a two-dimensional numerical model based on the Richards equation for variably saturated water flow, convection-dispersion equations with first-order chemical decay chains for solute transport, and bimodal piecewise-continuous unsaturated hydraulic functions to account for preferential flow of water and nitrate-nitrogen (NO3-N; loosely used as NO3/-) following flood irrigation events at the experimental site. The model was tested against measured NO3/- flux concentrations in an subsurface tile drain, several monitoring wells and nested piezometers, and against resident NO3/- concentrations in the soil profile (obtained at 52 spatial locations and four depths along a transect). NO3/- transport at the field site could be described better with the bimodal hydraulic functions than using the conventional approach with unimodal van Genuchten-Mualem type hydraulic functions. Average resident nitrate concentrations measured across the soil profile were predicted reasonably well. However, NO3/- flux concentrations in the subsurface tile drain and piezometers at the field site were occasionally underestimated or overestimated depending upon the irrigation sequence in three field benches, probably reflecting unrepresented three-dimensional regional flow/transport processes. Limiting the capture zone to a region closer to the tile drain did lead to a better match with observed sharp increases and decreases in predicted NO3/- flux concentrations during the irrigation events. On the basis of this result we inferred that the preferential flow intercepted by the tile drain was generated in close proximity of the drain and essentially oriented vertically. In summary, our study suggests that irrigation scheduling in adjacent field plots, drainage design (e.g., spacing between tiles, drain depth, drain diameter) and effectiveness (e.g., drain blockage), preferential flow in (horizontal) surface-opened shallow cracks and (vertical) macropores, and transient regional groundwater flow can add significant uncertainty to the predictions of (local-scale) flow and transport to a tile drain.

published proceedings


author list (cited authors)

  • Mohanty, B. P., Bowman, R. S., Hendrickx, J., Simunek, J., & van Genuchten, M. T.

citation count

  • 58

complete list of authors

  • Mohanty, BP||Bowman, RS||Hendrickx, JMH||Simunek, J||van Genuchten, MT

publication date

  • May 1998