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Historical pattern of phosphorus loading to Lake Erie watersheds

Han, Haejin, Allan, J. David, Bosch, Nathan S.
Journal of Great Lakes research 2012 v.38 no.2 pp. 289-298
agricultural watersheds, atmospheric deposition, cropland, crops, detergents, energy, eutrophication, feeds, fertilizers, freshwater, phosphorus, rivers, runoff, soil, Lake Erie
Phosphorus (P) applied to croplands in excess of crop requirements has resulted in large-scale accumulation of P in soils worldwide, leading to freshwater eutrophication from river runoff that may extend well into the future. However, several studies have reported declines in surplus P inputs to the land in recent decades. To quantify trends in P loading to Lake Erie (LE) watersheds, we estimated net anthropogenic phosphorus inputs (NAPI) to 18 LE watersheds for agricultural census years from 1935 to 2007. NAPI quantifies anthropogenic inputs of P from fertilizer use, atmospheric deposition and detergents, as well as the net exchange in P related to trade in food and feed. Over this 70-year period, NAPI increased to peak values in the 1970s and subsequently declined in 2007 to a level last experienced in 1935. This rise and fall was the result of two trends: a dramatic increase in fertilizer use, which peaked in the 1970s and then declined to about two-thirds of maximum values; and a steady increase in P exported as crops destined for animal feed and energy production. During 1974–2007, riverine phosphorus loads fluctuated, and were correlated with inter-annual variation in water discharge. However, riverine P export did not show consistent temporal trends, nor correlate with temporal trends in NAPI or fertilizer use. The fraction of P inputs exported by rivers appeared to increase sharply after the 1990s, but the cause is unknown. Thus estimates of phosphorus inputs to watersheds provide insight into changing source quantities but may be weak predictors of riverine export.