Sources, Instream Transport, and Trends of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Sediment in the Lower Tennessee River Basin, 1980-96


In 1997, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began an assessment of the lower Tennessee River Basin as part of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Existing nutrient and sediment data from 1980 to 1996 were compiled, screened, and interpreted to estimate watershed inputs from nutrient sources, provide a general description of the distribution and transport of nutrients and sediments in surface water, and evaluate trends in nutrient and sediment concentrations in the lower Tennessee (LTEN) River Basin.

Nitrogen inputs from major sources varied widely among tributary basins in the LTEN River Basin. Point source wastewater discharges contributed between 0 and 0.61 tons per square mile per year [(tons/mi2)/yr]. Of the nonpoint sources of nitrogen for which inputs were estimated (atmospheric deposition, nitrogen fixation, fertilizer application, and livestock waste) livestock waste contributed the largest input in about two-thirds (7 out of 11) of the tributary basins, and fertilizer application contributed the largest input in the remaining 4 basins. Nitrogen input from fertilizer application was the most variable spatially among the nonpoint sources of nitrogen, ranging from 1.5 to 23 (tons/mi2)/yr. Atmospheric deposition estimates varied the least from basin to basin, ranging from 1.6 to 2.0 (tons/mi2)/yr. Estimates of nitrogen input from livestock waste ranged between 2.0 to 13 (tons/mi2)/yr. The percentage of the input from each of these nonpoint sources that entered the surface-water system is not known.

Wastewater discharge contributed between 0 and 0.14 (ton/mi2)/yr of phosphorus to tributary basins. Livestock waste contributed most of the input in 8 out of the 11 basins, and fertilizer application contributed the most in the remaining 3 basins. Estimates of phosphorus input for fertilizer application ranged from 0.35 to 5.1 (tons/mi2)/yr and from 0.62 to 4.3 (tons/mi2)/yr from livestock waste.

Reservoirs on the main stem of the Tennessee River and on the Duck and Elk Rivers affect nutrient transport because hydrodynamic conditions in the reservoirs promote assimilation by aquatic plants and deposition of particulate matter. Observed decreases in total nitrite plus nitrate and dissolved-orthophosphorus concentrations in reservoirs or at sites downstream of reservoirs during summer months were probably related to seasonality of plant growth.

Nutrient and sediment data used to estimate annual instream loads and yields were compiled from various water-quality monitoring programs and represent the best available data in the LTEN River Basin, but these data have several characteristics that limit accuracy of load estimates. Many of the monitoring programs were not designed with the objective of annual load estimation, and data representing storm transport are, therefore, sparse; sampling and analytical methods varied through time and among the monitoring programs, hampering spatial and temporal comparisons. The load estimates computed from these data are useful for evaluating broad spatial patterns of instream load, and comparisons of instream load to inputs, but may not be sufficiently accurate for local-scale evaluations of water quality.

Estimates of the mean annual instream load of total nitrogen entering (Chattanooga, Tenn.) and leaving (Paducah, Ky.) the LTEN River Basin were 29,000 and 60,000 tons per year (tons/yr), respectively. These estimates represent a gain of 31,000 tons/yr, on average, across the area (18,930 mi2) between these inlet and outlet sites. The sum of the mean annual instream load from gaged tributaries to the main stem within the study unit was 14,000 tons/yr; however, this number cannot be directly compared with the gain between the inlet and outlet sites because (1) the gaged area represents only 30 percent of the total area and (2) the period of record at many tributary sites did not correspond with the period of record at the inlet or outlet sites.

Estimates of mean annual instream load of total phosphorus at the inlet and outlet sites of the LTEN River Basin were 1,300 and 5,000 tons/yr, respectively, representing a gain of 3,700 tons/yr, on average, across the study unit. The sum of the gaged tributary load, representing only 28 percent of the area contributing to the main stem, was 4,300 tons/yr. Although this number cannot be closely compared with the gain throughout the study unit, for the same reasons given for total nitrogen, a general comparison suggests that the main stem of the Tennessee River and the tributary embayments along the main stem function as a sink for total phosphorus, removing a substantial amount from the water column through deposition or assimilation.

The estimates of inputs can be compared and correlated with yields (area-normalized instream loads); significant correlations between estimates of inputs and yields might be useful as predictive tools for instream water quality where monitoring data are not available. Yields of nitrogen correlated moderately well with inputs from nonpoint sources, based on 1992 estimates. Nitrogen yield was highest [3.5 (tons/mi2)/yr] for Town Creek, for which the balance of nonpoint-source inputs to agricultural lands (fertilizer application plus nitrogen fixation plus livestock waste minus harvest) was also the highest [15 (tons/mi2)/yr]. Nitrogen yield was low [1.0 (tons/mi2)/yr] for the Buffalo River, for which the balance of agricultural nonpoint-source input was correspondingly low [3.2 (tons/mi2)/yr, the second lowest]. Correlation of wastewater discharge with yield was poor, and contrasted with the significant correlation between wastewater discharge and median nitrogen concentration during low streamflow. The poor correlation between wastewater discharge and annual yield was expected, however, as wastewater discharge is a small fraction compared with annual yield.

In contrast with nitrogen, phosphorus yield did not correlate well with any estimated inputs or land-use types for the tributary basins. Phosphorus yield was highest [1.1 and 0.93 (tons/mi2)/yr] at two sites along the Duck River and at Elk River near Prospect [0.89 (ton/mi2)/yr]; however, estimates of inputs at these sites were in the middle of their respective ranges. The influence of the outcrop of phosphatic limestone formations of the brown-phosphate districts in the lower Duck and lower Elk River Basins might be responsible for the poor correlation between estimated inputs and yields of phosphorus. The outcrop pattern of these phosphatic limestones are an important factor to consider as regional boundaries are established for attainable, region-specific water-quality criteria for total phosphorus.

Estimates of sediment input from cropland soil erosion in 1992 ranged from 51 to 540 (tons/mi2)/yr among the major hydrologic units in the LTEN River Basin. Information was not available to estimate this input for individual tributaries. Sediment yield estimates ranged from 65 to 263 (tons/mi2)/yr for the three tributary monitoring basins for which instream data were available, and from 17 to 26 (tons/mi2)/yr for the Tennessee River at South Pittsburg and at Pickwick Landing Dam, respectively. Lower sediment yields for the main stem sites compared with the tributary sites is probably due to sediment deposition in the main stem of the Tennessee River and tributary embayments along the main stem.

Most of the significant trends in nutrient concentrations from about 1985 to about 1995 were decreasing trends, except for total nitrite plus nitrate, which increased at one site on the Elk River. The spatial distribution of decreasing trends of total nitrogen and total ammonia corresponds with the spatial variation among basins in wastewater loading rate. The time period of observed trends corresponds to the period of improvements in municipal treatment, thus decreases in wastewater effluent concentrations of nitrogen might be responsible for the decreasing trend in instream concentrations at these sites. Concentrations of total phosphorus did not decrease during this period at these sites, as might have been expected considering the reductions in wastewater input of phosphorus during this period.

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