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Hydrologic and biogeochemical controls on phosphorus export from Western Lake Erie tributaries

Mark R. Williams, Kevin W. King, David B. Baker, Laura T. Johnson, Douglas R. Smith, Norman R. Fausey
Journal of Great Lakes research 2016 v.42 no.6 pp. 1403-1411
agricultural watersheds, environmental impact, phosphorus, prediction, rivers, silica, suspended sediment, time series analysis, Lake Erie
Understanding the processes controlling phosphorus (P) export from agricultural watersheds is essential for predicting and mitigating adverse environmental impacts. In this study, discharge, dissolved reactive P load, total P load, and suspended sediment time-series data (1975–2014) from two Lake Erie tributaries, the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, were evaluated to determine whether hydrologic or biogeochemical processes were responsible for observed patterns in P export. Findings indicate that hydrologic processes in these watersheds controlled P loading patterns, as P export was transport-limited (i.e., P loading was strongly correlated to watershed discharge) and P concentrations exhibited effective chemostatic behavior (i.e., low variability in concentration relative to discharge). The nature and behavior of observed P transport likely stems from a large, ubiquitous source of P present within each watershed as results were similar to those found for geogenic constituents (i.e., silica). Results suggest that changes in both precipitation patterns (e.g., precipitation variability) and watershed hydrologic response (e.g., water residence time) are likely explanations for observed increases in water and P loading in the Maumee and Sandusky watersheds. Future P loading in these watersheds should be expected to continue to be proportional to water flux as long as the magnitude and availability of the P source remains at its current level. Current P management strategies may therefore need to be reevaluated to better balance agricultural P requirements and watershed P loadings.