One size does not fit all: Toward regional conservation practice guidance to reduce phosphorus loss risk in the Lake Erie watershed
Merrin L. Macrae,
Helen P. Jarvie,
Grant E. Gunn,
Kevin W. King,
Peter J. A. Kleinman,
Mark R. Williams,
Journal of Environmental Quality, Volume 50, Issue 3
Agricultural phosphorus (P) losses to surface water bodies remain a global eutrophication concern, despite the application of conservation practices on farm fields. Although it is generally agreed upon that the use of multiple conservation practices (“stacking”) will lead to greater improvements to water quality, this may not be cost effective to farmers, reducing the likelihood of adoption. At present, wholesale recommendations of conservation practices are given; however, the application of specific conservation practices in certain environments (e.g., no-till with surface application, cover crops) may not be effective and can even lead to unintended consequences. In this paper, we present the Lake Erie watershed as a case study. The Lake Erie watershed contains regions with unique physical geographies that include differences in climate, soil, topography, and land use, which have implications for both P transport from agricultural fields and the efficacy of conservation practices in mitigating P losses. We define major regions within the Lake Erie watershed where common strategies for conservation practice implementation are appropriate, and we propose a five-step plan for bringing regionally tailored, adaptive, and cost-conscious conservation practice into watershed planning. Although this paper is specific to the Lake Erie watershed, our framework can be transferred across broader geographic regions to provide guidance for watershed planning.
Abstract Water quality issues, including harmful and nuisance algal blooms (HNABs), related to nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) exported from agricultural lands persist in the Great Lakes region. Previous work examining N and P loss from agricultural fields in portions of the United States (US) and Canada (CA) that drain into Lake Erie, consistently indicate significant nutrient loss from fields in Indiana and Ohio, US compared with those in southwestern Ontario, CA. The primary objective of this study was to examine variation in environmental and management characteristics from 30 sites (US: n = 28, CA: n = 2) located within the Lake Erie Basin and subsequently determine the influence of among-site variation on edge-of-field N and P losses. Using principal component analyses (PCA), we found that among-site variation was predominantly controlled by broad-scale patterns in fertilizer management practices and soil properties; however, N and P loss metrics were largely unexplained by these gradients. As such, fine-scale variability and the interaction of environmental and management characteristics at individual sites more strongly influenced N and P loss. Ultimately, these results further emphasize the importance of site- and nutrient-specific management plans that are needed to mitigate N and P losses from agricultural fields.
Phosphorus (P) loss in agricultural discharge has typically been associated with surface runoff; however, tile drains have been identified as a key P pathway due to preferential transport. Identifying when and where these pathways are active may establish high-risk periods and regions that are vulnerable for P loss. A synthesis of high-frequency, runoff data from eight cropped fields across the Great Lakes region of North America over a 3-yr period showed that both surface and tile flow occurred year-round, although tile flow occurred more frequently. The relative timing of surface and tile flow activation was classified into four response types to infer runoff-generation processes. Response types were found to vary with season and soil texture. In most events across all sites, tile responses preceded surface flow, whereas the occurrence of surface flow prior to tile flow was uncommon. The simultaneous activation of pathways, indicating rapid connectivity through the vadose zone, was seldom observed at the loam sites but occurred at clay sites during spring and summer. Surface flow at the loam sites was often generated as saturation-excess, a phenomenon rarely observed on the clay sites. Contrary to expectations, significant differences in P loads in tiles were not apparent under the different response types. This may be due to the frequency of the water quality sampling or may indicate that factors other than surface-tile hydrologic connectivity drive tile P concentrations. This work provides new insight into spatial and temporal differences in runoff mechanisms in tile-drained landscapes.
Abstract Phosphorus (P) losses from agricultural soils are a growing economic and water-quality concern in the Lake Erie watershed. While recent studies have explored edge-of-field and watershed P losses related to land-use and agricultural management, the potential for soils developed from contrasting parent materials to retain or release P to runoff has not been examined. A field-based study comparing eight agricultural fields in contrasting glacial landscapes (hummocky coarse-textured till-plain, lacustrine and fine-textured till-plain) showed distinct physical and geochemical soil properties influencing inorganic P (Pi) partitioning throughout the soil profile between the two regions. Fields located on the coarse-textured till-plain in mid-western Ontario, Canada had alkaline calcareous soils with the highest Total-Pi concentrations and the majority of soil Pi stored in an acid-soluble pool (up to 91%). In contrast, loosely to moderately soluble Pi concentrations were higher in soils of the lacustrine and fine-textured till-plain in southwestern Ontario, northeast Indiana and northwestern Ohio, US. Overall, soils on the lacustrine and fine-textured till-plain had a greater shrink swell-capacity, likely creating preferential flow to minimize Pi interaction with the more acidic, lower carbonate and lower sorption capacity soils. These differences in soil Pi retention and transport pathways demonstrate that in addition to management, the natural landscape may exert a significant control on how Pi is mobilized throughout the Lake Erie watershed. Further, results indicate that careful consideration of region-specific hydrology and soil biogeochemistry may be required when designing appropriate management strategies to minimize Pi losses across the lower Great Lakes region.