National Water Quality Assessment Program: Eastern Iowa Basins

Occurrence, Distribution, and Transport of Nutrients in Eastern Iowa Rivers, 1996-98

Kent D. Becher, Hydrologist, U.S. Geological Survey, Iowa City, Iowa

Proceedings from Agriculture and the Environment: State and Federal Initiatives conference at Iowa State University, March 5-7, 2001

Eleven streams in the Wapsipinicon, Cedar, Iowa, and Skunk River basins in eastern Iowa were sampled monthly from March 1996 through September 1998 to assess the occurrence, distribution, and transport of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. At least one form of dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus was detected in every sample collected. Nitrate accounted for 92 percent of the dissolved nitrogen. About 22 percent of the samples contained nitrate that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Maximum Contaminant Level of 10 milligrams per liter (mg/L) as nitrogen in drinking water. The median concentration of total nitrogen for surface water in the study area was 7.2 mg/L. Dissolved phosphorus was predominately in the form of orthophosphate. The median total phosphorus concentration for the study area was 0.22 mg/L. About 75 percent of the total phosphorus concentrations exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended total phosphorus concentration of 0.10 mg/L or less to minimize algal growth in streams not discharging directly into lakes or impoundments. Median suspended-sediment concentration for the study area was 82 mg/L.

Nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended-sediment concentrations varied annually and seasonally. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended-sediment concentrations increased each year of the study due to increased precipitation and runoff. Concentrations were typically higher in the spring after fertilizer application and runoff. In winter, nitrogen concentrations typically increased when there was little instream assimilation by aquatic plants and algae. Nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations decreased in late summer when there was less runoff and instream assimilation of nitrogen and phosphorus by aquatic plants and algae was high. Suspended-sediment concentrations were highest in early summer during runoff and lowest in January when there was ice cover with very little overland flow contributing to rivers and streams.

Streams draining small- to medium-sized watersheds that have uniform land use and geology had significantly (p < 0.05) higher total dissolved-nitrogen concentrations (median, 8.2 mg/L) than did samples from large rivers (median, 6.2 mg/L) that drain basins with mixed land use and geology. Samples from large rivers typically had significantly (p< 0.05) higher total phosphorus and suspended-sediment concentrations than did samples from small rivers and streams.

Concentrations varied between drainage basins due to land use and physiography. Basins that are located in areas with a higher percentage of row-crop agriculture typically had samples with higher nitrogen concentrations than did basins with less row-crop agriculture. In addition, basins that drain the Southern Iowa Drift Plain and the Des Moines Lobe typically had samples with higher total phosphorus and suspended-sediment concentrations than did basins that drain other landform regions.

Total nitrogen and total phosphorus loads were typically proportional to the size of the drainage basin. Total nitrogen loads increased each year from 1996 through 1998 in conjunction with increased concentrations and runoff. However, total phosphorus loads in the Skunk River Basin decreased in 1997 due to less runoff. Total phosphorus loads followed the same pattern as total nitrogen loads with increases in 1998. Total nitrogen and total phosphorus loads varied seasonally and the highest loads typically occurred in early spring and summer after fertilizer application and runoff. Loads were lowest in January and September when there was little runoff to transport nitrogen and phosphorus to the rivers and streams.

Total nitrogen loads contributed to the Mississippi River from the Eastern Iowa Basins during 1996, 1997, and 1998 were 97,000, 120,000, and 230,000 metric tons respectively. Total phosphorus loads contributed to the Mississippi River from the Eastern Iowa Basins during 1996, 1997, and 1998 were 6,900, 4,600, and 8,800 metric tons, respectively. The highest nitrogen and phosphorus yields typically occurred in streams draining small watersheds that were dominated by a single land use and geology. Sampling sites located in drainage basins with higher row-crop percentage typically had higher nitrogen and phosphorus yields. Sites that were located in the Des Moines Lobe and the Southern Iowa Drift Plain typically had higher phosphorus yields probably due to more erodible soils and steeper slopes.


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