Agricultural Water Quality in Cold Climates: Processes, Drivers, Management Options, and Research Needs
Helen M. Baulch,
Merrin L. Macrae,
Henry F. Wilson,
J. M. Elliott,
Aaron J. Glenn,
Journal of Environmental Quality, Volume 48, Issue 4
Cold agricultural regions are important sites of global food production. This has contributed to widespread water quality degradation influenced by processes and hydrologic pathways that differ from warm region analogues. In cold regions, snowmelt is often a dominant period of nutrient loss. Freeze-thaw processes contribute to nutrient mobilization. Frozen ground can limit infiltration and interaction with soils, and minimal nutrient uptake during the nongrowing season may govern nutrient export from agricultural catchments. This paper reviews agronomic, biogeochemical, and hydrological characteristics of cold agricultural regions and synthesizes findings of 23 studies that are published in this special section, which provide new insights into nutrient cycling and hydrochemical processes, model developments, and the efficacy of different potentially beneficial management practices (BMPs) across varied cold regions. Growing evidence suggests the need to redefine optimum soil phosphorus levels and input regimes in cold regions to allow achievement of water quality targets while still supporting strong agricultural productivity. Practices should be considered through a regional and site-specific lens, due to potential interactions between climate, hydrology, vegetation, and soils, which influence the efficacy of nutrient, crop, water, and riparian buffer management. This leads to differing suitability of BMPs across varied cold agricultural regions. We propose a systematic approach (""), to achieve water quality objectives in variable and changing climates, which combines nutrient transport process onceptualization, nderstanding BMP functions, redicting effects of variability and change, onsideration of producer input and agronomic and environmental tradeoffs, practice daptation, nowledge mobilization, and valuation of water quality improvement.
In the northern Great Plains, most runoff transport of N, and P to surface waters has historically occurred with snowmelt. In recent years, significant rainfall runoff events have become more frequent and intense in the region. Here, we examine the influence of landscape characteristics on hydrology and nutrient export in nine tributary watersheds of the Assiniboine River in Manitoba, Canada, during snowmelt runoff and with an early summer extreme rainfall runoff event (ERRE). All watersheds included in the study have land use that is primarily agricultural, but with differing proportions of land remaining as wetlands, grassland, and that has been artificially drained. Those watersheds with greater capacity for storage of water in surface depressions (noneffective contributing areas) exhibited lower rates of runoff and nutrient export with snowmelt. During the ERRE, higher export of total P (TP), but not total N, was observed from those watersheds with larger amounts of contributing area that had been added through artificial surface drainage, and this was associated primarily with higher TP concentrations. Increasing or restoring the storage of water on the landscape is likely to reduce nutrient export; however, the importance of antecedent conditions was evident during the ERRE, when small surface depressions were at or near capacity from snowmelt. Total P concentrations observed during the summer ERRE were as high as those observed with snowmelt, and N/P ratios were significantly lower. If the frequency of summer ERREs increases with climate change, this is likely to result in negative water quality outcomes.
In northern regions, a high proportion of annual runoff and phosphorus (P) export from cropland occurs with snowmelt. In this study, we analyze 57 site-years of field-scale snowmelt runoff data from 16 small watersheds draining fine-textured soils (clay or clay loam) in Manitoba, Canada. These fields were selected across gradients of soil P (2.4 to 26.7 mg kg, 0- to 15-cm Olsen P), tillage intensity (high frequency to long-term no-till), and fertilizer input. The strongest predictor of flow-weighted mean concentrations of total dissolved P (TDP) in snowmelt runoff was Olsen P in the top 5 cm of soil ( = 0.45, < 0.01). Residual variation in this relationship related positively to volumetric soil moisture and negatively to water yield. Although Olsen P levels were relatively consistent from year to year, suggesting control by long-term fertilization and tillage history, Olsen P stratification (ratio of 0-5/0-15 cm) increased with rates of fertilizer application. Particulate P (PP) comprised <34% of total P on average, and concentrations were not well predicted by soil or management characteristics. Loads of PP and TDP exported during snowmelt were primarily a function of water yield and size of accumulated snowpack; however, residual variation in the TDP relationship correlated positively with both soil moisture and Olsen P. Retention of runoff water on the landscape could reduce loads, but careful management of near-surface soil P is required to prevent snowmelt runoff losses of P at the source and to reduce the potential for the eutrophication of downstream aquatic ecosystems.