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Effect of variable annual precipitation and nutrient input on nitrogen and phosphorus transport from two Midwestern agricultural watersheds

S.J. Kalkhoff, L.E. Hubbard, M.D. Tomer, D.E. James
Science of the total environment 2016 v.559 pp. 53-62
agricultural watersheds, atmospheric precipitation, climate, growing season, livestock production, nitrate nitrogen, nitrates, nitrogen, nutrient transport, nutrients, phosphorus, rivers, runoff, snowmelt, Iowa, Minnesota, Prairie Pothole region
Precipitation patterns and nutrient inputs affect transport of nitrate (NO3-N) and phosphorus (TP) from Midwest watersheds. Nutrient concentrations and yields from two subsurface-drained watersheds, the Little Cobb River (LCR) in southern Minnesota and the South Fork Iowa River (SFIR) in northern Iowa, were evaluated during 1996–2007 to document relative differences in timings and amounts of nutrients transported. Both watersheds are located in the prairie pothole region, but the SFIR exhibits a longer growing season and more livestock production. The SFIR yielded significantly more NO3-N than the LCR watershed (31.2 versus 21.3kgNO3-Nha−1y−1). The SFIR watershed also yielded more TP than the LCR watershed (1.13 versus 0.51kgTPha−1yr−1), despite greater TP concentrations in the LCR. About 65% of NO3-N and 50% of TP loads were transported during April–June, and <20% of the annual loads were transported later in the growing season from July–September. Monthly NO3-N and TP loads peaked in April from the LCR but peaked in June from the SFIR; this difference was attributed to greater snowmelt runoff in the LCR. The annual NO3-N yield increased with increasing annual runoff at a similar rate in both watersheds, but the LCR watershed yielded less annual NO3-N than the SFIR for a similar annual runoff. These two watersheds are within 150 km of one another and have similar dominant agricultural systems, but differences in climate and cropping inputs affected amounts and timing of nutrient transport.