Nitrogen and Phosphorus Loads from Groundwater to Lake Spokane, Spokane, Washington, October 2016–October 2019

Scientific Investigations Report 2021-5023
Prepared in cooperation with Stevens County Conservation District and Spokane County Conservation District
By:  and 



Shallow nearshore groundwater and estimates of groundwater seepage were collected at 21 locations along the north and south shores of Lake Spokane beginning in October 2016 and ending in October 2019. Nitrate plus nitrite concentrations in nearshore groundwater ranged from <0.04 to 7.60 milligrams of nitrogen per liter. Nearshore groundwater orthophosphate concentrations ranged from <0.004 to 0.381 milligrams of phosphorus per liter, and, overall, there were no consistent seasonal differences in nearshore groundwater nutrients during this study. Nitrate plus nitrite concentrations were highest at sites located adjacent to nearshore development and similar to concentrations in water collected from nearby drinking water wells. Similarly, samples from locations adjacent to nearshore development were statistically greater than samples collected from other locations for orthophosphate concentrations. Dissolved boron concentrations, elevated values of which are an indicator of household-detergent use, were elevated in spring and summer at some locations, indicating that residential wastewater was reaching the lake. Stable isotope ratios of nitrate (15N and 18O), which were used to identify the source nitrate in sampled groundwater, showed that most data indicated a mix of soil nitrogen and nitrogen sources from human or animal waste.

Generally, median groundwater discharge to the lake was low across all sites and seasons, with most values smaller than 1 centimeter per day (cm/d). Similar to the nutrient-concentration data, seasonal patterns in seepage flux were weak, and, where there were seasonal increases in flux, the increased groundwater discharge did not carry increased nutrients. Localized estimates of groundwater seepage flux were scaled up to the entire length of the lakeshore. The median groundwater flux of 0.34 cm/d scaled to 1.9 cubic feet per second (ft3/s) and the maximum recorded seepage flux of 17.6 cm/d was equivalent to 97 ft3/s. These estimates of groundwater inputs are orders of magnitude less than surface water inputs to the lake.

Nutrient loads were determined from the product of groundwater flow and a representative nutrient concentration. Using the median seepage flux of 1.9 ft3/s, the orthophosphate load ranged from 0.7 to 3.8 pounds of phosphorus per day based on the median and maximum orthophosphate concentrations, respectively. For nitrate plus nitrite, loads ranged from 5.8 to 76.6 pounds of nitrogen per day. Using the maximum value of seepage flux, maximum orthophosphate loads ranged from 35 to 198 pounds of phosphorus per day, and maximum nitrate plus nitrite loads ranged from 296 to 3,943 pound of nitrogen per day. Overall, groundwater nutrient loads are small compared to other sources to the lake. Continued monitoring of future nutrient loads would aid decisions by resource managers as infrastructure within the neighboring residential communities continues to age around Lake Spokane.

Suggested Citation

Sheibley, R.W., and Foreman, J.R., 2021, Nitrogen and phosphorus loads from groundwater to Lake Spokane, Spokane, Washington, October 2016–October 2019: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2021–5023, 34 p.,

ISSN: 2328-0328 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Methods of Investigation
  • Analysis of Data Quality
  • Results
  • Discussion
  • Summary
  • Acknowledgments
  • References Cited
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Nitrogen and phosphorus loads from groundwater to Lake Spokane, Spokane, Washington, October 2016–October 2019
Series title Scientific Investigations Report
Series number 2021-5023
DOI 10.3133/sir20215023
Year Published 2021
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Washington Water Science Center
Description Report: vii, 34 p.; Data Release
Country United States
State Washington
Other Geospatial Lake Spokane
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details