Discharge of treated municipal-sewage effluent to the Carson River in western Nevada and eastern California ceased by 1987 and resulted in a substantial decrease in phosphorus concentrations in the Carson River. Nonetheless, concentrations of total phosphorus and suspended sediment still commonly exceed beneficial-use criteria established for the Carson River by the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection. Potential sources of phosphorus in the study area include natural inputs from undisturbed soils, erosion of soils and streambanks, construction of low-head dams and their destruction during floods, manure production and grazing by cattle along streambanks, drainage from fields irrigated with streamwater and treated municipal-sewage effluent, ground-water seepage, and urban runoff including inputs from golf courses. In 2000, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with Carson Water Subconservancy District, began an investigation with the overall purpose of providing managers and regulators with information necessary to develop and implement total maximum daily loads for the Carson River. Two specific goals of the investigation were (1) to identify those reaches of the Carson River upstream from Lahontan Reservoir where the greatest increases in phosphorus and suspended-sediment concentrations and loading occur, and (2) to identify the most important sources of phosphorus within the reaches of the Carson River where the greatest increases in concentration and loading occur.
Total-phosphorus concentrations in surface-water samples collected by USGS in the study area during water years 2001-02 ranged from <0.01 to 1.78 mg/L and dissolved-orthophosphate concentrations ranged from <0.01 to 1.81 mg/L as phosphorus. In streamflow entering Carson Valley from headwater areas in the East Fork Carson River, the majority of samples exceeding the total phosphorus water-quality standard of 0.1 mg/L occur during spring runoff (March, April, and May) when suspended-sediment concentrations are high. Downstream from Carson Valley, almost all samples exceed the water-quality standard, with the greatest concentrations observed during spring and summer months.
Estimated annual total-phosphorus loads ranged from 1.33 tons at the West Fork Carson River at Woodfords to 43.41 tons at the Carson River near Carson City during water years 2001-02. Loads are greatest during spring runoff, followed by fall and winter, and least during the summer, which corresponds to the amount of streamflow in the Carson River. The estimated average annual phosphorus load entering Carson Valley was 21.9 tons; whereas, the estimated average annual phosphorus load leaving Carson Valley was 37.8 tons, for an annual gain in load across Carson Valley of 15.9 tons. Thus, about 58 percent of the total-phosphorus load leaving Carson Valley on an annual basis could be attributed to headwater reaches upstream from Carson Valley. During spring and summer (April 1-September 30) an average of 85 percent of the total-phosphorus load leaving Carson Valley could be attributed to headwater reaches. During fall and winter (October 1-March 31) only 17 percent of the phosphorus load leaving Carson Valley could be attributed to headwater reaches.
The composition of the phosphorus changes during summer from particulate phosphorus entering Carson Valley to dissolved orthophosphate leaving Carson Valley. Particulate phosphorus entering Carson Valley could be settling out when water is applied to fields and be replaced by dissolved orthophosphate from other sources. Alternatively, the particulate phosphorus could be converted to dissolved orthophosphate as it travels across Carson Valley. Data collected during the study are not sufficient to distinguish between the two possibilities.
Eagle Valley and Dayton-Churchill Valleys may act as sinks for phosphorus. On an annual basis, during water years 2001-02, about 90 percent of the phosphorus entering Eagle Valley left the