Nitrogen and phosphorus loading from drained wetlands adjacent to Upper Klamath and Agency lakes, Oregon

Water-Resources Investigations Report 97-4059

Prepared in cooperation with the Bureau of Reclamation



Upper Klamath Lake and the connecting Agency Lake constitute a large, shallow lake in south-central Oregon that the historical record indicates has likely been eutrophic since its discovery by non-Native Americans. In recent decades, however, the lake has had annual occurrences of near-monoculture blooms of the blue-green alga Aphanizomenon flos-aquae that are thought to be a result of accelerated eutrophication. In 1988, two sucker species endemic to the lake, the Lost River sucker (Deltistes luxatus) and the shortnose sucker (Chasmistes brevirostris), were listed as endangered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and it has been proposed that their decline is due to the poor water quality associated with extremely long and productive algal blooms. It has also been proposed that the effluent drained from wetlands has contributed to accelerated eutrophication.

Since the turn of century, most of the wetlands adjacent to Upper Klamath Lake have been drained for agriculture--cultivation of crops and grazing of cattle. Wetland areas were reclaimed from the lake by building dikes to isolate them from the lake, constructing a series of drainage ditches, and installing pumps to drain the water and maintain a lowered water table. A consequence of lowering the water table is the increased ability of air and oxygenated water to move through the subsurface and facilitate the rapid aerobic decomposition of the peat soils. Nutrients, nitrogen and phosphorus, are then liberated, leach into adjacent ditches, and are subsequently pumped to the lake or its tributaries. The rate of peat decomposition may be related to the time since drainage and the type of agricultural land use. On lands cultivated for crops, farming practices, such as disking and furrowing, could enhance the movement of air and oxygenated water, resulting in a rapid rate of decomposition. In contrast, on grazed lands, the compaction of soils by cattle probably inhibits the movement of air and oxygenated water and results in a slower rate of decomposition relative to drained wetlands used for the cultivation of crops.

This report presents the results of a cooperative study between the U.S. Geological Survey and the Bureau of Reclamation whose overall objective was to determine the nutrient loading to Upper Klamath Lake from adjacent drained wetlands. Nutrient loading from drained wetlands was estimated using two independent techniques. The first method involved the measurement of the quantity and quality of water discharged by pumps draining the wetlands. The second method was used to estimate the initial (before drainage) and present-day nutrient mass of the organic soils within the drained wetlands and to calculate the change (or loss) in nutrient mass.

In an effort to estimate the nutrient contributions from the water pumped off selected drained wetlands adjacent to Upper Klamath Lake, annual loads and yields of total nitrogen and total phosphorus were estimated from concentration data and the volume of water pumped during the water year. In general, there was little variation among sites or among years in the annual total nitrogen (median load of about 18 tons per year and median yield of about 8 pounds per acre per year) or the annual total phosphorus (median load of about 3 tons per year and median yield of about 2 pounds per acre per year) contributions. The sum of the annual loads of nitrogen and phosphorus calculated for each of the pumping stations in 1995 was 80 tons per year and 15 tons per year, respectively.

In 1995, soil-coring activities were undertaken to ascertain the nature and extent of the organic soils in the drained and undrained wetlands. The present-day nutrient mass was calculated for each drained wetland using the nutrient content (concentration) and the present-day peat mass. The initial nutrient mass prior to drainage was estimated for each drained wetland by using the initial nutrient content (assumed to be equal to the nutrient content of the undrained wetlands) and the initial peat mass as determined using the amount of accumulated decomposition residue. The cumulative loss of nutrient mass since drainage was calculated as the change between initial and present-day nutrient mass for each drained area.

The cumulative yield of total nitrogen and total phosphorus loss from the organic soils of individual wetlands since drainage ranged from 3,000 to 70,000 pounds per acre and from 0 to 1,300 pounds per acre, respectively. For all the drained wetlands sampled, the cumulative nitrogen and phosphorus loss since drainage totaled 250,000 tons and 4,300 tons, respectively. This represents about 30 percent and 22 percent of the mass of nitrogen and phosphorus, respectively, that initially existed in the organic soils. The loss of nutrients from the drained wetlands is considered to be a maximum estimate of the possible contribution of nutrients to Upper Klamath Lake from the peat soils of the drained wetlands sampled. However, not all the nutrients released by the soils are discharged to the lake. Nutrients lost from the peat soils of the drained wetlands may have been taken up by crops and harvested or consumed by grazing cattle. In addition, nitrogen can be lost to the atmosphere by denitrification and the volatilization of ammonia; phosphorus may be bound to adjacent soil layers by adsorption.

The annual nutrient loss for the period 1994–95 was calculated using a first-order rate law to describe nutrient loss since drainage began. For individual drained wetlands, the yield of nitrogen and phosphorus lost from the organic soils for the period 1994–95 ranged from 27 to 540 pounds per acre per year and from 0 to 15 pounds per acre per year, respectively. The total mass of nitrogen and phosphorus loss during this period was 3,000 tons per year and 60 tons per year, respectively, for all drained wetlands that were sampled. The yield and mass of nutrient loss determined in this fashion reflect what might be expected on the basis of time-averaged or longterm contributions of nutrients to the lake and do not reflect the specific conditions existing during the period 1994–95.

The results of this study could be useful in helping to prioritize which drained wetlands may provide the greatest benefits with regard to reducing nutrient loads to the lake if restoration or land-use modifications are instituted. Recent acquisition and planned restoration of drained wetland areas at the Wood River and Williamson River North properties may produce significant reduction in the quantity of nutrients released by the decomposition of peat soils of these areas. If the water table rises to predrainage levels, the peats soils may become inundated most of the year, resulting in the continued long-term storage of nutrients within the peat soils by reducing aerobic decomposition. The maximum benefit, in terms of decreasing potential nutrient loss due to peat decomposition, could be the reduction of total nitrogen and total phosphorus loss to about one-half that of the 1994–95 annual loss estimated for all the drained wetlands sampled for this study.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Nitrogen and phosphorus loading from drained wetlands adjacent to Upper Klamath and Agency lakes, Oregon
Series title:
Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Portland, OR
Report: ix, 67 p.; 2 Plates: 36.00 x 25.00 inches
United States
Other Geospatial:
Agency Lake, Klamath Lake
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