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Promising results for Silverstream denitrification wall trial

Nitrate levels in groundwater have been reduced from 7.1mg/l to 0.5 mg/l at the site of an Institute of Environmental and Scientific Research (ESR)-led denitrification wall trial at Silverstream Reserve.

The 25-metre-long wall, which was installed eight weeks ago, is a world-first as denitrification walls haven’t been tested in fast-flowing gravel aquifer systems, like those found in Silverstream. ESR senior scientist Lee Burbery says he’s delighted that the wall is working as anticipated.

“The wall itself is effectively removing all of the nitrate in the groundwater that passes through it. We are seeing a plume of treated groundwater extend down-gradient from the wall.”

The denitrification wall acts as a groundwater filter. Woodchip mixed with gravel removes nitrate from groundwater passing through the wall. Carbon from the woodchip provides a food source for bacteria within the ground to convert nitrate in groundwater to a harmless di-nitrogen gas (N2), which makes up 80 per cent of the air we breathe.

Woodchip mixed with gravel removes nitrate from groundwater passing through the wall.

The wall is split into two 12.5 metre sections, each of which is filled with a 50:50 mix of woodchip and gravel. The wall is three metres deep and five metres wide; the width being determined by groundwater velocity and nitrate concentration. Lee says two different mixes are being tested within the wall to determine which type of material is the most cost effective and efficient at removing nitrates.

Murray Close & Lee Burbury showing the gravel rounds mixed with chipped wood.

“One is the “Rolls Royce”; it has 20-40mm gravel rounds mixed with chipped wood. The other is material dug out of the site, screened and mixed with hogged wood. The second option could work better for landowners as it’s more cost effective.”

The test site was selected because of its shallow water table and high nitrate levels and it is far enough from Silverstream to ensure that the operation of the wall will not adversely impact on the waterway.

“We have 34 monitoring wells on the site which will be increased to about 50. It’s important to ensure that there won’t be any adverse effects with pollution swapping from the woodchip, but we haven’t seen any evidence of this so far.”

North Canterbury zone manager Andrew Arps says the project is an excellent example of the practical and collaborative approach that is being taken by the Waimakariri Zone Committee and partner organisations to deal with high nitrate levels in local waterways.

Partially constructed denitrification wall with gravel and chipped wood

“We’re really pleased with the positive results to date and this ties in with other projects in the Silverstream catchment including the joint ECan-WIL infiltration trial and monitoring sites set up along the waterway.

“This year we’ll be focusing on “Clean and Green Silverstream” which is a holistic and hands-on approach to cleaning up the stream and greening the banks. The only way forward is for everyone to work side-by-side and to cover the entire catchment from the springheads right through to the Kaiapoi and Waimakariri rivers.”

The trial will run for two years, while the actual wall itself is expected have an operational lifespan of around 30 years. ESR lead scientist Murray Close expects the site to function as a demonstration model to show landowners how the concept works. “We’re trying to establish guidelines on how denitrification walls work, and this site will provide a practical example.”

Due to the expense of sheet piling when constructing the wall, Murray says denitrification wells could be a more cost-effective option for landowners.

Sheet piling used in the construction of the wall

“One possibility is offset lines of wells. You could drill one-metre diameter wells and fill these with a mix of gravel and woodchip. The casings would then be removed, and this would work in a similar way to denitrification walls, but without the cost of sheet piling.”

Murray believes that denitrification walls could be part of the answer to reducing Silverstream’s high nitrate levels. “All of the work being carried out at Silverstream addresses different parts of the puzzle. Our piece of the puzzle is what we can do to address the nitrates that are already in the groundwater. “I think it will take a combination of approaches to deliver the improvements that we want to see for Silverstream.”

Watch the video below for more information on the denitrification wall trial. Initial results show nitrate levels reducing from 7.2mg/l upstream of the denitrification wall to 0.5 mg/l inside the wall and then a slight increase to 2.2 mg/l approximately 15 to 20 metres downstream of the wall as the treated water mixes with groundwater.

ESR and site staff discuss sheet piling during construction of the denitrification wall

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