Abstract Excess nitrogen from intensive agricultural production, atmospheric N deposition, and urban point sources elevates stream nitrate concentrations, leading to problems of eutrophication and ecosystem degradation in coastal waters. A major emphasis of current US‐scale analysis of water quality is to better our understanding of the relationship between changes in anthropogenic N inputs within watersheds and subsequent changes in riverine N loads. While most water quality modeling assumes a positive linear correlation between watershed N inputs and riverine N, many efforts to reduce riverine N through improved nutrient management practices result in little or no short‐term improvements in water quality. Here, we use nitrate concentration and load data from 478 US watersheds, along with developed N input trajectories for these watersheds, to quantify time‐varying relationships between N inputs and riverine N export. Our results show substantial variations in watershed N import‐export relationships over time, with quantifiable hysteresis effects. Our results show that more population‐dense urban watersheds in the northeastern U.S. more frequently show clockwise hysteresis relationships between N imports and riverine N export, with accelerated improvements in water quality being achieved through the implementation of point‐source controls. In contrast, counterclockwise hysteresis dynamics are more common in agricultural watersheds, where time lags occur between the implementation of nutrient management practices and water‐quality improvements. Finally, we find higher tile‐drainage densities to be associated with more linear relationships between N inputs and riverine N. The empirical analysis in this study is bolstered by modeled simulations to reproduce and further explain drivers behind the hysteretic relationships commonly observed in the monitored watersheds.
Managing nitrogen legacies to accelerate water quality improvement
Nandita B. Basu,
K. J. Van Meter,
Philippe Van Cappellen,
Brian H. Jacobsen,
David L. Rudolph,
Maria da Conceição Cunha,
Søren Bøye Olsen
Nature Geoscience, Volume 15, Issue 2
Increasing incidences of eutrophication and groundwater quality impairment from agricultural nitrogen pollution are threatening humans and ecosystem health. Minimal improvements in water quality have been achieved despite billions of dollars invested in conservation measures worldwide. Such apparent failures can be attributed in part to legacy nitrogen that has accumulated over decades of agricultural intensification and that can lead to time lags in water quality improvement. Here, we identify the key knowledge gaps related to landscape nitrogen legacies and propose approaches to manage and improve water quality, given the presence of these legacies.
Reactive nitrogen (N) fluxes have increased tenfold over the last century, driven by increases in population, shifting diets, and increased use of commercial N fertilizers. Runoff of excess N from intensively managed landscapes threatens drinking water quality and disrupts aquatic ecosystems. Excess N is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural soils. While N emissions from agricultural landscapes are known to originate from not only current‐year N input but also legacy N accumulation in soils and groundwater, there has been limited access to fine‐scale, long‐term data regarding N inputs and outputs over decades of intensive agricultural land use. In the present work, we synthesize population, agricultural, and atmospheric deposition data to develop a comprehensive, 88‐year (1930–2017) data set of county‐scale components of the N mass balance across the contiguous United States (Trajectories Nutrient Dataset for nitrogen [TREND‐nitrogen]). Using a machine‐learning algorithm, we also develop spatially explicit typologies for components of the N mass balance. Our results indicate a large range of N trajectory behaviors across the United States due to differences in land use and management and particularly due to the very different drivers of N dynamics in densely populated urban areas compared with intensively managed agricultural zones. Our analysis of N trajectories also demonstrates a widespread functional homogenization of agricultural landscapes. This newly developed typology of N trajectories improves our understanding of long‐term N dynamics, and the underlying data set provides a powerful tool for modeling the impacts of legacy N on past, present, and future water quality.
Growing populations and agricultural intensification have led to raised riverine nitrogen (N) loads, widespread oxygen depletion in coastal zones (coastal hypoxia)1 and increases in the incidence of algal blooms.Although recent work has suggested that individual wetlands have the potential to improve water quality2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9, little is known about the current magnitude of wetland N removal at the landscape scale. Here we use National Wetland Inventory data and 5-kilometre grid-scale estimates of N inputs and outputs to demonstrate that current N removal by US wetlands (about 860 ± 160 kilotonnes of nitrogen per year) is limited by a spatial disconnect between high-density wetland areas and N hotspots. Our model simulations suggest that a spatially targeted increase in US wetland area by 10 per cent (5.1 million hectares) would double wetland N removal. This increase would provide an estimated 54 per cent decrease in N loading in nitrate-affected watersheds such as the Mississippi River Basin. The costs of this increase in area would be approximately 3.3 billion US dollars annually across the USA—nearly twice the cost of wetland restoration on non-agricultural, undeveloped land—but would provide approximately 40 times more N removal. These results suggest that water quality improvements, as well as other types of ecosystem services such as flood control and fish and wildlife habitat, should be considered when creating policy regarding wetland restoration and protection.
Changes in seasonal nutrient dynamics are occurring across a range of climates and land use types. Although it is known that seasonal patterns in nutrient availability are key drivers of both stream metabolism and eutrophication, there has been little success in developing a comprehensive understanding of seasonal variations in nutrient export across watersheds or of the relationship between nutrient seasonality and watershed characteristics. In the present study, we have used concentration and discharge data from more than 200 stations across U.S. and Canadian watersheds to identify (1) archetypal seasonal concentration regimes for nitrate, soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP), and total phosphorus, and (2) dominant watershed controls on these regimes across a gradient of climate, land use, and topography. Our analysis shows that less impacted watersheds, with more forested and wetland area, most commonly exhibit concentration regimes that are in phase with discharge, with concentration lows occurring during summer low‐flow periods. Agricultural watersheds also commonly exhibit in‐phase behavior, though the seasonality is usually muted compared to that seen in less impacted areas. With increasing urban area, however, nutrient concentrations frequently become essentially aseasonal or even exhibit clearly out‐of‐phase behavior. In addition, our data indicate that seasonal SRP concentration patterns may be strongly influenced by proximal controls such as the presence of dams and reservoirs. In all, these results suggest that human activity is significantly altering nutrient concentration regimes, with large potential consequences for both in‐stream metabolism and eutrophication risk in downstream waterbodies.