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Direct groundwater discharge and vulnerability to hidden nutrient loads along the Great Lakes coast of the United States

Knights, Deon, Parks, Kevin C., Sawyer, Audrey H., David, Cédric H., Browning, Trevor N., Danner, Kelsey M., Wallace, Corey D.
Journal of hydrology 2017 v.554 pp. 331-341
sediments, mineralization, water quality, lakes, organic matter, nitrogen, uncertainty, land use, models, groundwater flow, nitrates, coasts, pollution load, nutrients, groundwater, desorption, phosphorus, Lake Erie, Lake Michigan, United States
Direct groundwater discharge delivers nutrients from land and lakebed sediments to the Great Lakes, which impacts lake water quality. Broad spatial distributions of discharging groundwater are often difficult to measure directly. We present high resolution estimates of direct groundwater discharge across 43% of the Great Lakes coastline based on a water budget approach that uses hydroclimatic models and high-resolution hydrographic data available within the United States. We also integrate land use data to identify coastal areas vulnerable to high groundwater-borne nutrient loads. Estimated rates of direct groundwater discharge along the Great Lakes coast are highly variable, but generally are greatest for Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. Almost one-third of Lake Erie’s United States coastline is vulnerable to groundwater sources of nutrients. To assess uncertainties and limitations in our vulnerability analysis, a vulnerable site along Lake Erie was selected for detailed field measurements of direct groundwater discharge rates and nutrient fluxes. Measured discharge rates were significantly lower than water budget-based estimates (354±25m3y−1m−1 compared to 588±181m3y−1m−1). Dissolved phosphorous concentrations in the lakebed were elevated compared to onshore groundwater, while nitrate concentrations were lower, indicative of a highly reactive sediment-water interface. Some of the measured phosphorus may be locally sourced from desorption of legacy P or mineralization of organic matter in the lakebed, which our vulnerability framework does not include. Much of the land-derived nitrogen may be transformed along groundwater flow paths prior to discharge. While model-based estimates of direct groundwater discharge and vulnerability to nutrient loading are important for managing Great Lakes water quality, direct field observations remain essential for quantifying fluxes.