Agricultural land use and water quality in the upper St. Joseph River basin, Michigan

Open-File Report 78-950




Land use in the upper St. Joseph River basin of south-central Michigan is primarily agricultural. In the 144-square-mile area, the chemical and physical characteristics of water are determined by the climate and soils, as well as by land conservation practices. Municipal waste discharges affect water quality at some locations, as do the larger lakes and ponds. Data indicate that mean discharge from the basin is 135 cubic feet per second. About half this flow is contributed to the St. Joseph River by three major tributaries: Beebe Creek (36 cubic feet per second); Sand Creek (24 cubic feet per second); and Soap Creek (13 cubic feet per second). Runoff from 21 drainage areas delineated for the investigation ranged from 0.22 to 4.07 cubic feet per second per square mile; both the higher and lower values are largely the result of naturally occurring inter- and intrabasin transfers of water.

Suspended-sediment concentrations are low throughout the basin, rarely exceeding 100 milligrams per liter. Mean concentrations at four daily sampling stations on the major tributaries and on the St. Joseph River ranged from 9.7 milligrams per liter to 38 milligrams per liter. The maximum sediment yield was 182 pounds per acre per year. Deposition of sediment in five of the 21 areas resulted in a net loss of sediment transported, and thus “negative” yields.

Nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations do not vary greatly from site to site. Mean concentrations of total nitrogen at downstream sites on Beebe, Sand, and Soap Creeks, and on the St. Joseph River ranged from 1.5 to 1.8 milligrams per liter. About 90 percent of all nitrogen, and 66 percent of all phosphorus, is transported in solution. Land used principally for agriculture has a mean total nitrogen yield of 4.9 pounds per acre per year and a mean total phosphorus yield of 0.13 pounds per year. A comparison of total nitrogen and total phosphorus yields with type of agricultural use showed few relationships; nitrogen yield, however, seems to decrease as the percentage of land in row crop and small grain increases. A relation between amount of fertilizer applied to land and the amount in streams could not be demonstrated.

Only about 6 percent of the total nitrogen and about 1 percent of the total phosphorus added to the land in animal wastes, in precipitation, and applied as fertilizer, is transported from the basin by the St. Joseph River at Clarendon. Estimates also suggest that almost three times as much nitrogen, and twice as much phosphorus, fall in precipitation on the basin as is transported from the basin by runoff. In general, land conservation practices of the past seem to have been effective in minimizing erosion and leaching of soils in the basin.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Agricultural land use and water quality in the upper St. Joseph River basin, Michigan
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Lansing, MI
Contributing office(s):
Michigan Water Science Center
xiv, 160 p.
United States
Other Geospatial:
Upper St. Joseph River Basin