Nutrient and sediment data collected at 115 sites by Federal and State agencies from 1993 to 2004 were analyzed by the U.S. Geological Survey to determine trends in concentrations and loads for selected rivers and streams that drain into the northwestern Gulf of Mexico from the south-central United States, specifically from the Lower Mississippi, Arkansas-White-Red, and Texas-Gulf Basins. Trends observed in the study area were compared to determine potential regional patterns and to determine cause-effect relations with trends in hydrologic and human-induced factors such as nutrient sources, streamflow, and implementation of best management practices. Secondary objectives included calculation of loads and yields for the study period as a basis for comparing the delivery of nutrients and sediment to the northwestern Gulf of Mexico from the various rivers within the study area. In addition, loads were assessed at seven selected sites for the period 1980-2004 to give hydrologic perspective to trends in loads observed during 1993-2004.
Most study sites (about 64 percent) either had no trends or decreasing trends in streamflow during the study period. The regional pattern of decreasing trends in streamflow during the study period appeared to correspond to moist conditions at the beginning of the study period and the influence of three drought periods during the study period, of which the most extreme was in 2000. Trend tests were completed for ammonia at 49 sites, for nitrite plus nitrate at 69 sites, and for total nitrogen at 41 sites. For all nitrogen constituents analyzed, no trends were observed at half or more of the sites. No regional trend patterns could be confirmed because there was poor spatial representation of the trend sites. Decreasing trends in flow-adjusted concentrations of ammonia were observed at 25 sites. No increasing trends in concentrations of ammonia were noted at any sites. Flow-adjusted concentrations of nitrite plus nitrate decreased at 7 sites and increased at14 sites. Flow-adjusted concentrations of total nitrogen decreased at 2 sites and increased at 12 sites. Improvements to municipal wastewater treatment facilities contributed to the decline of ammonia concentrations at selected sites. Notable increasing trends in nitrite plus nitrate and total nitrogen at selected study sites were attributed to both point and nonpointsources. Trend patterns in total nitrogen generally followed trend patterns in nitrite plus nitrate, which was understandable given that nitrite plus nitrate loads generally were 70-90 percent of the total nitrogen loads at most sites. Population data were used as a surrogate to understand the relation between changes in point sources and nutrient trends because data from wastewater treatment plants were inconsistent for this study area. Although population increased throughout the study area during the study period, there was no observed relation between increasing trends in nitrogen in study area streams and increasing trends in population. With respect to other nitrogen sources, statistical results did suggest that increasing trends in nitrogen could be related to increasing trends in nitrogen from either commercial fertilizer use and/or land application of manure.
Loads of ammonia, nitrite plus nitrate, and total nitrogen decreased during the study period, but some trends in nitrogen loads were part of long-term decreases since 1980. For example, ammonia loads were shown to decrease at nearly all sites over the past decade, but at selected sites, these decreasing trends were part of much longer trends since 1980. The Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers contributed the highest nitrogen loads to the northwestern Gulf of Mexico as expected; however, nitrogen yields from smaller rivers had similar or higher yields than yields from the Mississippi River.
Trend tests were completed for orthophosphorus at 34 sites and for total phosphorus at 52 sites. No trends were observed in abo