Seasonal patterns in nutrients, carbon, and algal responses in wadeable streams within three geographically distinct areas of the United States, 2007-08

Scientific Investigations Report 2012-5086

National Water-Quality Assessment Program
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The U.S. Geological Survey determined seasonal variability in nutrients, carbon, and algal biomass in 22 wadeable streams over a 1-year period during 2007 or 2008 within three geographically distinct areas in the United States. The three areas are the Upper Mississippi River Basin (UMIS) in Minnesota, the Ozark Plateaus (ORZK) in southern Missouri and northern Arkansas, and the Upper Snake River Basin (USNK) in southern Idaho. Seasonal patterns in some constituent concentrations and algal responses were distinct. Nitrate concentrations were greatest during the winter in all study areas potentially because of a reduction in denitrification rates and algal uptake during the winter, along with reduced surface runoff. Decreases in nitrate concentrations during the spring and summer at most stream sites coincided with increased streamflow during the snowmelt runoff or spring storms indicating dilution. The continued decrease in nitrate concentrations during summer potentially is because of a reduction in nitrate inputs (from decreased surface runoff) or increases in biological uptake. In contrast to nitrate concentrations, ammonia concentrations varied among study areas. Ammonia concentration trends were similar at UMIS and USNK sampling sites with winter peak concentrations and rapid decreases in ammonia concentrations by spring or early summer. In contrast, ammonia concentrations at OZRK sampling sites were more variable with peak concentrations later in the year. Ammonia may accumulate in stream water in the winter under ice and snow cover at the UMIS and USNK sites because of limited algal metabolism and increased mineralization of decaying organic matter under reducing conditions within stream bottom sediments. Phosphorus concentration patterns and the type of phosphorus present changes with changing hydrologic conditions and seasons and varied among study areas. Orthophosphate concentrations tended to be greater in the summer at UMIS sites, whereas total phosphorus concentrations at most UMIS and USNK sites peaked in the spring during runoff and then decreased through the remainder of the sampling period. Total phosphorus and orthophosphate concentrations in OZRK streams peaked during summer indicating a runoff-based source of both nutrients. Orthophosphate concentrations may increase in streams in the late summer when surface runoff composes less of total streamflow, and when groundwater containing orthophosphate becomes a more dominant source in streams during lower flows. Seston chlorophyll a concentrations were greatest early in the growing season (spring), whereas the spring runoff events coincided with reductions in benthic algal chlorophyll a biomass likely because of scour of benthic algae from the channel bottom that are entrained in the water column during that period. Nitrate, ammonia, and orthophosphate concentrations also decreased during that same period, indicating dilution in the spring during runoff events. The data from this study indicate that the source of water (surface runoff or groundwater) to a stream and the intensity of major runoff events are important factors controlling instream concentrations. Biological processes appear to affect nutrient concentrations during more stable lower flow periods in later summer, fall, and winter when residence time of water in a channel is longer, which allows more time for biological uptake and transformations. Management of nutrient conditions in streams is challenging and requires an understanding of multiple factors that affect in-stream nutrient concentrations and biological uptake and growth.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Seasonal patterns in nutrients, carbon, and algal responses in wadeable streams within three geographically distinct areas of the United States, 2007-08
Series title:
Scientific Investigations Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
Reston, VA
Contributing office(s):
Minnesota Water Science Center
ix, 45 p.; Tables: 8 pgs. 48-55
United States