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Reference conditions and threshold values for nitrate-nitrogen in New Zealand groundwaters

June 2023

Publication: Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand
Author(s): Christopher J. Daughney, Uwe Morgenstern, Magali Moreau, Richard W. McDowell

Management of groundwater quality is assisted by an understanding of reference conditions, which describe the concentration ranges expected for key substances in the absence of human impact.

This study evaluates reference conditions for NO3–N in New Zealand groundwater based on three complementary methods: hierarchical cluster analysis, relationships to groundwater age, and regression against a measure of land-use impact.

The three methods result in very similar national-scale estimates of reference conditions for NO3–N concentration in oxic, minimally impacted groundwater, with the 80th, 90th and 95th percentiles found to be 1.65 ± 0.12, 1.97 ± 0.14 and 2.32 ± 0.14 mg/l, respectively (weighted average ± 95% confidence level), in good general agreement with previous studies from New Zealand and overseas.

Anoxic groundwaters were treated separately for definition of reference conditions, with the 80th and 90th percentiles of NO3–N found to be 0.04 ± 0.01 and 0.16 ± 0.01, respectively (the 95th percentile could not be estimated reliably).

For both oxic and anoxic groundwater, where a site-specific investigation has not been conducted to estimate reference conditions at a local scale, we suggest that the 80th percentile is an appropriate national-scale default threshold, to match the thresholds used for surface waters under the Australian and New Zealand Guidelines for Fresh and Marine Water Quality.

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