ArcNLET: A GIS-based Software to Simulate Groundwater Nitrate Load from Septic Systems to Surface Water Bodies

Computers & GeosciencesComputers & Geosciences, Published online 15 October 2012

J. Fernando Rios, Ming Ye, Liying Wang, Paul Z. Lee, Hal Davis, and Rick Hicks


  • We present an ArcGIS-based software for estimating nitrate loads from point sources.
  • Based on simplified models of groundwater flow and nitrate transport/fate.
  • It is easy to use and has low data requirements.
  • The software provides screening -level estimates of nitrate concentration and load.

“Onsite wastewater treatment systems (OWTS), or septic systems, can be a significant source of nitrates in groundwater and surface water. The adverse effects that nitrates have on human and environmental health have given rise to the need to estimate the actual or potential level of nitrate contamination. With the goal of reducing data collection and preparation costs, and decreasing the time required to produce an estimate compared to complex nitrate modeling tools, we developed the ArcGIS-based Nitrate Load Estimation Toolkit (ArcNLET) software. Leveraging the power of geographic information systems (GIS), ArcNLET is an easy-to-use software capable of simulating nitrate transport in groundwater and estimating long-term nitrate loads from groundwater to surface water bodies. Data requirements are reduced by using simplified models of groundwater flow and nitrate transport which consider nitrate attenuation mechanisms (subsurface dispersion and denitrification) as well as spatial variability in the hydraulic parameters and septic tank distribution. ArcNLET provides a spatial distribution of nitrate plumes from multiple septic systems and a load estimate to water bodies.

“ArcNLET’s conceptual model is divided into three sub-models: a groundwater flow model, a nitrate transport and fate model, and a load estimation model which are implemented as an extension to ArcGIS. The groundwater flow model uses a map of topography in order to generate a steady-state approximation of the water table. In a validation study, this approximation was found to correlate well with a water table produced by a calibrated numerical model although it was found that the degree to which the water table resembles the topography can vary greatly across the modeling domain. The transport model uses a semi-analytical solution to estimate the distribution of nitrate within groundwater, which is then used to estimate a nitrate load using a mass balance argument. The estimates given by ArcNLET are suitable for a screening-level analysis.”