Excess nutrients, suspended-sediment loads, and the presence of pesticides in Iowa rivers can have deleterious effects on water quality in State streams, downstream major rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico. Fertilizer and pesticides are used to support crop growth on Iowa's highly productive agricultural landscape and for household and commercial lawns and gardens. Water quality was characterized near the mouths of 10 major Iowa tributaries to the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers from March 2004 through September 2008. Stream loads were calculated for select ions, nutrients, and sediment using approximately monthly samples, and samples from storm and snowmelt events. Water-quality samples collected using standard streamflow-integrated protocols were analyzed for major ions, nutrients, carbon, pesticides, and suspended sediment. Statistical data summaries of sample data used parametric and nonparametric techniques to address potential bias related to censored data and multiple levels of censoring of data below analytical detection limits. Constituent stream loads were computed using standard pre-defined models in S-LOADEST that include streamflow and time terms plus additional terms for streamflow variability and streamflow anomalies. Streamflow variability terms describe the difference in streamflow from recent average conditions, whereas streamflow anomaly terms account for deviations from average conditions from long- to short-term sequentially. Streamflow variability or anomaly terms were included in 44 of 80 site/constituent individual models, demonstrating the usefulness of these terms in increasing accuracy of the load estimates. Constituent concentrations in Iowa streams exhibit streamflow, seasonal, and spatial patterns related to the landform and climate gradients across the studied basins. The streamflow-concentration relation indicated dilution for ions such as chloride and sulfate. Other constituent concentrations, such as dissolved organic carbon and suspended sediment, increased with streamflow. Nitrogen concentrations (total nitrogen and nitrate plus nitrite) increased with low and moderate streamflows, but decreased with high streamflows. Seasonal patterns observed in constituent concentrations were affected by streamflow, algae blooms, and pesticide application. The various landform regions produced different water-quality responses across the study basins; for example, total phosphorus, suspended sediment, and turbidity were greatest from the steep, loess-dominated southwestern Iowa basins. Nutrient concentrations, though not regulated for drinking water at the study sites, were high compared to drinking-water limits and criteria for protection of aquatic life proposed for other Midwestern states (Iowa criteria for aquatic life have not been proposed). Nitrate plus nitrite concentrations exceeded the drinking-water limit [10 milligrams per liter (mg/L)] in 11 percent of all samples at the 10 sites, and exceeded Minnesota's proposed aquatic life criteria (4.9 mg/L) in 68 percent of samples. The Wisconsin standard for total phosphorus (0.1 mg/L) was exceeded in 92 percent of samples. Ammonia standards, current during sample collection and at publication of this report, for protection of aquatic life were met for all samples, but draft criteria proposed in 2009 to protect more sensitive species like mussels, were exceeded at three sites. Loads and yields also differed among sites and years. The Big Sioux, Little Sioux, and Des Moines Rivers produced the greatest sulfate yields. Mississippi River tributaries had greater chloride yields than Missouri River tributaries. The Big Sioux River also had the lowest silica yields and total nitrogen and nitrate yields, whereas nitrogen yields were greater in the northeastern rivers. The Boyer and Nishnabotna River total phosphorus yields were the greatest in the study. The Boyer River orthophosphate yields were greatest except in 2008, when the Maquoketa River produced the greatest yield. Rivers in southwestern Iowa's Western Loess Hills and Steeply Rolling Loess Prairie ecoregions had the greatest suspended-sediment yields, whereas the smallest yields were in the Big Sioux and Wapsipinicon Rivers. In the 10 Iowa rivers studied, combined annual total nitrogen stream transport ranged from 3.68 to 9.95 tons per square mile per year, and total phosphorus transport ranged from 0.138 to 0.570 tons per square mile per year. Six-month loads relative to fertilizer use ranged from 8 to 56 percent for nitrogen, and 1.0 to 11.1 percent for phosphorus. The smallest loads relative to fertilizer use for both nitrogen and phosphorus occurred in July-December of dry years, and the largest nitrogen and phosphorus loads relative to use were in wet years from January-June.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Concentrations, loads, and yields of select constituents from major tributaries of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in Iowa, water years 2004-2008