The research was carried out for 7 years, 1998-2005, in a semi-agricultural watershed, called Centonara, set within a natural regional park and situated in the hills surrounding Bologna, northern Italy. This area is characterized by one of the most interesting badlands complexes in Europe and represents one of the main points of naturalistic interest. The watershed is partially cultivated (about 30% of the total area) with arable crops, mostly cereals and alfalfa. To evaluate the impact of agricultural activity on the eco-sustainability of this area, the nitrogen (N) balance was computed. Although it is only an estimation of the potential environmental damage, the nitrogen balance is a useful indicator of the risk posed to the environment from excessive nitrogen and can be useful to understand the possible effects of a certain type of agricultural and environmental management and policy. The balance was calculated by computing the difference between all inputs and all outputs. The nitrogen balance of the watershed was found to be sustainable, with an annual nitrogen balance ranging between –2.3 and +4.4 kg ha–1. Despite the limited presence of arable lands, the agricultural management played the main role in determining the sustainability of the watershed, strongly influencing both the principal N sources and sinks. In fact, major N inputs derived from inorganic fertilization (8.1-15.5 kg ha–1yr–1) and biological fixation (8.3-14.3 kg ha–1yr–1). On the other hand, plant removal constituted the most important output (17.7-25.6 kg ha–1yr–1). N losses in the drainage water were limited (3.0-9.5 kg ha–1yr–1) and the Centonara stream water was found to be unpolluted, with a nitrate concentration always below the EU limit for drinking water. The similar magnitude of total N inputs and outputs indicated that the crop management, especially the crop rotation and the N fertilization, in the Centonara watershed has reached a good level of ecological sustainability. Finally, the computation of the N fertilizer-use efficiency index resulted to be useful to identify which crop and which type of management (organic or conventional) were more suitable for the pedo-climatic condition of the studied area.
agriculture, eco-sustainability, nitrogen balance, nitrogen losses, watershed.