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SIR 2006-5107 Abstract

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National Water-Quality Assessment Program

Nutrients in Streams and Rivers Across the Nation — 1992–2001

By David K. Mueller and Norman E. Spahr


Nutrient compounds of nitrogen and phosphorus were investigated in streams and rivers sampled as part of the U.S. Geological Survey National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. Nutrient data were collected in 20 NAWQA study units during 1992-95, 16 study units during 1996-98, and 15 study units during 1999-2001. To facilitate comparisons among sampling sites with variable sampling frequency, daily loads were determined by using regression models that relate constituent transport to streamflow and time. Model results were used to compute mean annual loads, yields, and concentrations of ammonia, nitrate, total nitrogen, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus, which were compared among stream and river sampling sites. Variations in the occurrence and distribution of nutrients in streams and rivers on a broad national scale reflect differences in the sources of nutrient inputs to the upstream watersheds and in watershed characteristics that affect movement of those nutrients.

Sites were classified by watershed size and by land use in the upstream watershed: agriculture, urban, and undeveloped (forest or rangeland). Selection of NAWQA urban sites was intended to avoid effects of major wastewater-treatment plants and other point sources, but in some locations this was not feasible. Nutrient concentrations and yields generally increased with anthropogenic development in the watershed. Median concentrations and yields for all constituents at sites downstream from undeveloped areas were less than at sites downstream from agricultural or urban areas. Concentrations of ammonia, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus at agricultural and urban sites were not significantly different; however, concentrations of nitrate and total nitrogen were higher at agricultural than at urban sites. Total nitrogen concentrations at agricultural sites were higher in areas of high nitrogen input or enhanced transport, such as irrigation or artificial drainage that can rapidly move water from cropland to streams (Midwest, Northern Plains, and western areas of the United States). Concentrations were lower in the Southeast, where more denitrification occurs during transport of nitrogen compounds in shallow ground water. At urban sites, high concentrations of ammonia and orthophosphate were more prevalent downstream from wastewater-treatment plants. At sites with large watersheds and high mean-annual streamflow (“large-watershed” sites), concentrations of most nutrients were significantly less than at sites downstream from agricultural or urban areas. Total nitrogen concentrations at large-watershed sites were higher in Midwest agricultural areas and lower in the Western United States, where agricultural and urban development is less extensive. Total phosphorus concentrations at large-watershed sites were higher in areas of greater potential erosion and low overall runoff such as the arid areas in the West.

Although not as distinct as seasonal patterns of streamflow, geographic patterns of seasonally high and low concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorus were identified in the data. Seasonal patterns in concentrations of total nitrogen generally mirror seasonal patterns in streamflow in the humid Eastern United States but are inverse to seasonal patterns in streamflow in the semiarid interior West. Total phosphorus concentrations typically have the opposite regional relation with streamflow; high concentrations coincide with high streamflows in the interior West.

In the NAWQA Program, sites downstream from relatively undeveloped areas were selected to provide a baseline for comparison to sites with potential effects of urban development and agriculture. Concentrations of nitrate, total nitrogen, and total phosphorus at NAWQA undeveloped sites were found to be greater than values reported by other studies for conditions of essentially no development (background conditions). Concentrations at NAWQA undeveloped sites represent conditions of relatively little development and provide insight in comparison to developed areas but should not, in general, be considered to represent background status.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has developed nutrient criteria to assist States in setting regional water-quality standards. Regional criteria were exceeded by total nitrogen concentrations at 72 percent of NAWQA undeveloped sites and by total phosphorus concentrations at 89 percent of these sites. Exceedances were even more extensive at sites with greater anthropogenic development upstream. The nitrogen criteria were exceeded at 96 percent of NAWQA sites classified as agricultural, urban, or mixed land use, and the phosphorus criteria were exceeded at 97 percent of these sites.

Nationally, outflow loads of all nutrient constituents were strongly correlated to nonpoint-source inputs in the upstream watershed. The variation in input mass explained at least 69 percent of the variation in loads. Correlations between nonpoint-source input rates and outflow yields were not quite as good; variation in input rates explained only about 22-45 percent of the variations in nutrient yields. Estimation of nutrient outflow, on the basis of these correlations, likely could be improved if nationally consistent data were available for additional watershed characteristics. logo