The following is from the U.S. EPA website on water quality monitoring
What are nitrates and why are they important?
Nitrates are a form of nitrogen, which is found in several different forms in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. These forms of nitrogen include ammonia (NH3), nitrates (NO3), and nitrites (NO2). Nitrates are essential plant nutrients, but in excess amounts they can cause significant water quality problems. Together with phosphorus, nitrates in excess amounts can accelerate eutrophication, causing dramatic increases in aquatic plant growth and changes in the types of plants and animals that live in the stream. This, in turn, affects dissolved oxygen, temperature, and other indicators. Excess nitrates can cause hypoxia (low levels of dissolved oxygen) and can become toxic to warm-blooded animals at higher concentrations (10 mg/L) or higher) under certain conditions. The natural level of ammonia or nitrate in surface water is typically low (less than 1 mg/L); in the effluent of wastewater treatment plants, it can range up to 30 mg/L.
Sources of nitrates include wastewater treatment plants, runoff from fertilized lawns and cropland, failing on-site septic systems, runoff from animal manure storage areas, and industrial discharges that contain corrosion inhibitors.
Sampling and equipment considerations
Nitrates from land sources end up in rivers and streams more quickly than other nutrients like phosphorus. This is because they dissolve in water more readily than phosphates, which have an attraction for soil particles. As a result, nitrates serve as a better indicator of the possibility of a source of sewage or manure pollution during dry weather.
Water that is polluted with nitrogen-rich organic matter might show low nitrates. Decomposition of the organic matter lowers the dissolved oxygen level, which in turn slows the rate at which ammonia is oxidized to nitrite (NO2) and then to nitrate (NO3). Under such circumstances, it might be necessary to also monitor for nitrites or ammonia, which are considerably more toxic to aquatic life than nitrate. (See Standard Methods section 4500-NH3 and 4500-NO2 for appropriate nitrite methods; APHA, 1992)
For sampling details regarding Nitrogen see Phosphorus page. Here