Streamflow-related variability in nutrient flux represents an important source of uncertainty in managing nutrient inputs to coastal ecosystems. Quantification of flux variability is of particular interest to coastal resource managers in adopting effective nutrient-reduction goals and monitoring progress towards these goals. We used historical records of streamflow and water-quality measurements for 104 river monitoring stations in an analysis of variability in annual and seasonal flux of nitrate to the Atlantic coastal zone. We present two measures of temporal flux variability: the coefficient of variation (CV) and the exceedence probability (EP) of 1.5 times the median flux. The magnitude of flux variations spans a very wide range and depends importantly upon the season of year and the climatic and land-use characteristics of the tributary watersheds. Year-to-year variations (CV) in annual mean flux range over two orders of magnitude, from 3-200% of the long-term mean flux, although variations more typically range from 20-40% of the long term mean. The annual probability of exceeding the long term median flux by more than 50% (EP) is less than 0.10 in most rivers, but is between 0.10 and 0.35 in 40% of the rivers. Year- to-year variability in seasonal mean flux commonly exceeds that in annual flux by a factor of 1.5 to 4. In western Gulf of Mexico coastal rivers, the year-to- year variability in the seasonal mean flux is larger than in other regions, and is of a similar magnitude in all seasons. By contrast, in Atlantic coastal rivers, the winter and spring seasons, which account for about 70% of the annual flux, display the smallest relative variability in seasonal mean flux. We quantify the elasticity of nutrient flux to hypothetical changes in streamflow (i.e., the percent increase in flux per percentage increase in mean discharge) to allow the approximation of flux variability from streamflow records and the estimation of the effects of future climatically induced changes in streamflow on nutrient flux. Flux elasticities are less than unity (median = 0.93%) at most stations, but vary widely from 0.05 % to 1.59%. Elasticities above unity occur most frequently in the largest rivers and in rivers draining the arid portions of the western Gulf of Mexico Basin. Historical flux variability and elasticity generally increase with the extent of arid conditions and the quantity of nonurban land use in the watershed. We extend the analysis of flux variability to examine several case studies of highly unusual meteorological events capable of significantly elevating nitrate flux and degrading estuarine ecology.
Additional publication details
Streamflow-induced variations in nitrate flux in tributaries to the Atlantic coastal zone