Determining natural background concentrations of nutrients in watersheds in the developed world has been hampered by a lack of pristine sampling sites covering a range of climatic conditions and basin sizes. Using data from 63 minimally impacted U.S. Geological Survey reference basins, we developed empirical models of the background yield of total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) from small watersheds as functions of annual runoff, basin size, atmospheric nitrogen deposition rate, and region-specific factors. We applied previously estimated in-stream loss rates to yields from the small watershed models to obtain estimates of background TN and TP yield and concentration throughout the stream/river network in 14 ecoregions of the conterminous United States. Background TN concentration varies from less than 0.02 mg L-1 in the xeric west to more than 0.5 mg L-1 along the southeastern coastal plain. Background TP concentration varies from less than 0.006 mg L-1 in the xeric west to more than 0.08 mg L-1 in the great plains. TN concentrations in U.S. streams and rivers currently exceed natural background levels by a much larger factor (6.4) than do TP concentrations (2.0). Because of local variation in runoff and other factors, the range of background nutrient concentrations is very large within some nutrient ecoregions. It is likely that background concentrations in some streams in these regions exceed proposed nutrient criteria.
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Natural background concentrations of nutrients in streams and rivers of the conterminous United States