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Multi-decadal trajectories of phosphorus loading, export, and instream retention along a catchment gradient
- Westphal, Katja, Graeber, Daniel, Musolff, Andreas, Fang, Yu, Jawitz, James W., Borchardt, Dietrich
- The Science of the total environment 2019 v.667 pp. 769-779
- chlorophyll, data collection, ecosystems, eutrophication, monitoring, phosphorus, pollution load, risk, rivers, total phosphorus, watersheds, weirs, Germany
- Phosphorus inputs to many rivers have been reduced in recent decades to mitigate the damaging effects of eutrophication. However, reductions in total phosphorus (TP) inputs rarely correspond with ecological improvements of the river ecosystem. We analyzed a unique weekly long-term data set ranging from 1966 to 2013, covering seven monitoring sites in the Ruhr River in Germany. We identified the relative importance of different TP sources, quantified long-term trajectories of degradation and recovery, including the dynamics of TP retention, and assessed the response of chlorophyll-a (Chl-a) to increasing and decreasing TP concentrations along the whole river gradient.We found that the decline of TP loads at the beginning of the 1980s was dominantly triggered by a reduction of point sources. The cumulative TP retention capacity increased along the river gradient, increasing from effectively zero in the upstream section, to 26% and 36% of TP input in the upper midstream and lower downstream section. This pattern is consistent with higher prevalence of impoundments and weirs downstream, indicating that TP retention is likely associated with sedimentation posing a potential risk due to remobilization of legacy phosphorus.Degradation and recovery pathways differ from upstream to downstream. Along the river continuum we found three distinct types of reversible trajectories: 1. instream storage only during the recovery phase (upstream only); 2. instream storage in both degradation and recovery phases, but with significantly different characteristics depending on TP input load (midstream only); 3. higher instream storage during the recovery phase (downstream only).While in-stream TP loads may recover rapidly, the ecological response to altered nutrient inputs can be associated with considerable time-lags and decouplings between Chl-a and TP concentrations. Therefore, river systems may not return to historically good ecological status solely from massive nutrient reduction, but may also require other management activities.