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Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5086

National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Seasonal Patterns in Nutrients, Carbon, and Algal Responses in Wadeable Streams within Three Geographically Distinct Areas of the United States, 2007–08

By Kathy E. Lee, David L. Lorenz, James C. Petersen, and John B. Greene

Thumbnail of and link to report PDF (6.07 MB)Abstract

The U.S. Geological Survey determined seasonal variability in nutrients, carbon, and algal biomass in 22 wadeable streams over a 1-year period during 2007 or 2008 within three geographically distinct areas in the United States. The three areas are the Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMIS) in Minnesota, the Ozark Plateaus (ORZK) in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and the Upper Snake River Basin (USNK) in southern Idaho. Seasonal patterns in some constituent concentrations and algal responses were distinct. Nitrate concentrations were greatest during the winter in all study areas potentially because of a reduction in denitrification rates and algal uptake during the winter, along with reduced surface runoff. Decreases in nitrate concentrations during the spring and summer at most stream sites coincided with increased streamflow during the snowmelt runoff or spring storms indicating dilution. The continued decrease in nitrate concentrations during summer potentially is because of a reduction in nitrate inputs (from decreased surface runoff) or increases in biological uptake. In contrast to nitrate concentrations, ammonia concentrations varied among study areas. Ammonia concentration trends were similar at UMIS and USNK sampling sites with winter peak concentrations and rapid decreases in ammonia concentrations by spring or early summer. In contrast, ammonia concentrations at OZRK sampling sites were more variable with peak concentrations later in the year. Ammonia may accumulate in stream water in the winter under ice and snow cover at the UMIS and USNK sites because of limited algal metabolism and increased mineralization of decaying organic matter under reducing conditions within stream bottom sediments. Phosphorus concentration patterns and the type of phosphorus present changes with changing hydrologic conditions and seasons and varied among study areas. Orthophosphate concentrations tended to be greater in the summer at UMIS sites, whereas total phosphorus concentrations at most UMIS and USNK sites peaked in the spring during runoff and then decreased through the remainder of the sampling period.

Total phosphorus and orthophosphate concentrations in OZRK streams peaked during summer indicating a runoff-based source of both nutrients. Orthophosphate concentrations may increase in streams in the late summer when surface runoff composes less of total streamflow, and when groundwater containing orthophosphate becomes a more dominant source in streams during lower flows.

Seston chlorophyll a concentrations were greatest early in the growing season (spring), whereas the spring runoff events coincided with reductions in benthic algal chlorophyll a biomass likely because of scour of benthic algae from the channel bottom that are entrained in the water column during that period. Nitrate, ammonia, and orthophosphate concentrations also decreased during that same period, indicating dilution in the spring during runoff events.

The data from this study indicate that the source of water (surface runoff or groundwater) to a stream and the intensity of major runoff events are important factors controlling instream concentrations. Biological processes appear to affect nutrient concentrations during more stable lower flow periods in later summer, fall, and winter when residence time of water in a channel is longer, which allows more time for biological uptake and transformations. Management of nutrient conditions in streams is challenging and requires an understanding of multiple factors that affect in-stream nutrient concentrations and biological uptake and growth.

First posted June 29, 2012

For additional information contact:
Director, Minnesota Water Science Center
U.S. Geological Survey
2280 Woodale Drive
Mounds View, Minnesota 55112

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Suggested citation:

Lee, K.E., Lorenz, D.L., Petersen, J.C., and Greene, J.B., 2012, Seasonal patterns in nutrients, carbon, and algal responses in wadeable streams within three geographically distinct areas of the United States, 2007–08: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012–5086, 55 p.





Study Design and Approach

Field Collection and Laboratory Analytical Methods

Data Analyses Methods

Basin, Near-Stream, and In-Stream Characteristics Among Study Areas

Site Grouping Based on Basin, Near-Stream, and In-Stream Characteristics

Seasonal Trends in Nutrients, Carbon, and Algal Responses


References Cited

Supplemental Tables

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