Nonpoint-source pollutant discharges of the three major tributaries to Reelfoot Lake, West Tennessee, October 1987 through September 1989

U.S. Geological Survey, Water Resources Investigations Report 91-4031

by Michael E. Lewis, Jerry W. Garrett and Anne B. Hoos

This report is available as a pdf below


An investigation of the concentration and loads of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment in storm runoff to Reelfoot Lake, in western Tennessee, was conducted from October 1987 through September 1989. Concentrations of selected herbicides also were defined. Reelfoot Lake, with a surface area of about 15,500 acres, is the largest natural lake in Tennessee and an important recreation and fisheries resource. Previous studies showed that the lake is hypereutrophic, a condition caused by high concentrations of nutrients in water and sediments discharged from the three principal tributaries (South Reelfoot Creek, North Reelfoot Creek, and Running Slough) to the lake. Pesticides, including herbicides, have been detected in the lake's bottom sediments.

Storm runoff contributed about 87percent of the total water discharge of the three main tributaries to Reelfoot Lake. South Reelfoot Creek contributed about 4.7 tons per acre per year of suspended sediment, while North Reelfoot Creek contributed about 1.9 tons per acre per year. Running Slough contributed only about 0.31 ton per acre per year of suspended sediment. Most of the suspended sediment was transported by storm runoff between October and March. About 80 percent of the annual streamflow of the three tributaries occurs during these months.

The North Reelfoot Creek basin contributed 8.2 pounds per acre per year of total nitrogen and 2.4 pounds per acre per year of total phosphorus. South Reelfoot Creek basin contributed about 6.5 and 1.3 pounds per acre per year of total nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively, while Running Slough basin contributions were 3.4 and 0.86 pounds per acre per year, respectively. The differences in nutrient yields appear to result from more row-crop agriculture and the relatively steeply sloping agricultural land in the North Reelfoot Creek basin. Ninety-one percent of the total nitrogen load and 95 percent of the total phosphorus load in the three streams was transported by storm runoff. Significant differences in the mean concentrations of nutrients in runoff were defined between the active agricultural months (April through September) and the inactive months (October through March).

Storm-runoff samples were analyzed for 11 selected triazine herbicides. Alachlor and atrazine were the most commonly detected herbicides. Thirty-two percent of the samples contained detectable levels of alachlor and 93 percent of the samples contained detectable levels of atrazine. Ninety percent of the samples collected during the active agricultural months contained detectable levels of alachlor and all 29 samples contained detectable levels of atrazine. Sixteen samples exceeded lifetime health-advisory levels for atrazine in drinking water (3 micrograms per liter); two samples collected from the April 18, 1988, storm at North Reelfoot Creek and South Reelfoot Creek contained 42 and 57 micrograms per liter of atrazine, respectively. Concentrations of the other nine triazine herbicides were generally less than the level of detection (0.1 microgram per liter).

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