Phosphorus and groundwater: Establishing links between agricultural use and transport to streams

Fact Sheet 2012-3004

Prepared as part of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program, Agricultural Chemicals Team (ACT)



Phosphorus is a highly reactive element that is essential for life and forms a variety of compounds in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. In water, phosphorus may be present as the orthophosphate ion (PO43-) and is also present in all life forms as an essential component of cellular material. In natural ecosystems, phosphorus is derived from the erosion of rocks and is conserved for plant growth as it is returned to the soil through animal waste and the decomposition of plant and animal tissue; but in agricultural systems, a portion of the phosphorus is removed with each harvest, especially since phosphorus is concentrated in the seeds and fruit. Phosphorus is added to soil by using chemical fertilizers, manure, and composted materials. Agricultural use of chemical phosphorus fertilizer, in the United States, in 2008 was 4,247,000 tons, which is an increase of 25 percent since 1964 ( Widely grown corn, soybeans, and wheat use the greatest amount of phosphorus fertilizer among agricultural crops.

Phosphorus is largely retained in soil by a process called adsorption. Soils have a limited capacity to store phosphorus, and once the capacity of soil to adsorb phosphorus is exceeded, the excess will dissolve and move more freely with water either directly to a stream or downward to an aquifer. Surface-water runoff from rainstorms or excess irrigation is the primary way that phosphorus or soil containing phosphorus is transported to streams in most watersheds. There is a growing awareness that long-term over-application of manure and chemical fertilizer contributes to phosphorus movement into the groundwater system, resulting in a significant groundwater source of phosphorus to streams and lakes, as well as potential contamination of the groundwater resources.

Leaching of applied fertilizer and surface runoff of phosphorus from the soil can contribute to excess growth of algae in downstream water bodies, a condition known as eutrophication. Excessive amounts of algae in eutrophic water bodies can cause large daily changes in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water because oxygen concentrations tend to be high during daylight hours as a result of photosynthetic activity but then decrease at night. Low concentrations of dissolved oxygen can stress or kill sensitive species living in the water.

This study examined concentrations and movement of phosphorus in the soils and groundwater in five agricultural settings across the United States characterized by differences in soil geochemistry, climate, irrigation usage, and cropping systems to assess potential phosphorus movement in the soil and groundwater under common agricultural conditions. The study design included assessment of a variety of agricultural practices, especially cropping patterns and irrigation, so that the factors that contribute to phosphorus movement to groundwater, or sequestration of the phosphorus to soil could be compared and examined. This type of information could potentially be used to formulate best management practices to limit the transport of phosphorus from the agricultural fields.

Additional Publication Details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Phosphorus and groundwater: Establishing links between agricultural use and transport to streams
Series title:
Fact Sheet
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
California Water Science Center
4 p.
United States