Variable impacts of contemporary versus legacy agricultural phosphorus on US river water quality

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Phosphorus (P) fertilizer has contributed to the eutrophication of freshwater ecosystems. Watershed-based conservation programs aiming to reduce external P loading to surface waters have not resulted in significant water-quality improvements. One factor that can help explain the lack of water-quality response is remobilization of accumulated legacy (historical) P within the terrestrial-aquatic continuum, which can obscure the beneficial impacts of current conservation efforts. We examined how contemporary river P trends (between 1992 and 2012) responded to estimated changes in contemporary agricultural P balances [(fertilizer + manure inputs)—crop uptake and harvest removal] for 143 watersheds in the conterminous United States, while also developing a proxy estimate of legacy P contribution, which refers to anthropogenic P inputs before 1992. We concluded that legacy sources contributed to river export in 49 watersheds because mean contemporary river P export exceeded mean contemporary agricultural P balances. For the other 94 watersheds, agricultural P balances exceeded river P export, and our proxy estimate of legacy P was inconclusive. If legacy contributions occurred in these locations, they were likely small and dwarfed by contemporary P sources. Our continental-scale P mass balance results indicated that improved incentives and strategies are needed to promote the adoption of nutrient-conserving practices and reduce widespread contemporary P surpluses. However, a P surplus reduction is only 1 component of an effective nutrient plan as we found agricultural balances decreased in 91 watersheds with no consistent water-quality improvements, and balances increased in 52 watersheds with no consistent water-quality degradation.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Variable impacts of contemporary versus legacy agricultural phosphorus on US river water quality
Series title PNAS
DOI 10.1073/pnas.1903226116
Volume 116
Issue 41
Year Published 2019
Language English
Publisher National Academy of Sciences
Contributing office(s) WMA - Earth System Processes Division
Description 6 p.
First page 20562
Last page 20567
Country United States
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