Intensive agricultural activities in the Hetao irrigation district have severely degraded local aquatic ecosystems and water quality, and Ulansuhai Lake is now the most rapidly degrading eutrophic lake in China. A better understanding of the hydro-agronomic and pollutant transport processes in the area is thus urgently needed. This study simulated monthly streamflow, total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) for the Hetao irrigation district using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool (SWAT) to evaluate the nutrient load, source areas, and hydrological pathways. The Nash-Sutcliffe efficiency (NSE) values obtained for the streamflow simulations were 0.75 and 0.78 for the calibration and evaluation periods, respectively. The SWAT model captured the temporal variation in streamflow (R2
> 0.8) for two periods; the NSE values for the TN and TP loads were 0.63 and 0.64 for the calibration period and 0.48 and 0.42 for the evaluation period, respectively. The predicted monthly TN load was correlated with irrigation (r
= 0.61) and the monthly TP load with precipitation (r
= 0.89), indicating that nitrogen transport is primarily associated with soil leaching and groundwater flow, and phosphorus is primarily transported by sediments caused by rainfall erosion. A case study of split nitrogen fertilizer applications demonstrated reduced annual TN load by as much as 13% in one year. Fertilization timing also affects the load in different pathways especially in lateral subsurface flow and shallow groundwater. Better agricultural management could thus reduce nitrogen losses, and buffer strips could minimize phosphorus transport.
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