In 1995, the U.S. Geological Survey conducted a study to characterize nutrient concentrations in five off-stream reservoirs in the lower South Platte River Basin?Riverside, Jackson, Prewitt, North Sterling, and Julesburg. These reservoirs are critical sources of irrigation water for agricultural areas, and several also are used for fishing, boating, swimming, hunting, and camping. Data collected for this study include depth profiles of water temperature, dissolved oxygen, pH, and specific conductance; nutrient species concentrations in the water column, bottom sediment, and inflow and outflow canals; and chlorophyll-a concentrations in the water column. Data were collected during the irrigation season from March through September 1995 at five sites each in Riverside, Jackson, Prewitt, and Julesburg Reservoirs and at six sites in North Sterling Reservoir.
The five reservoirs studied are located in similar geographic, climatic, and land-use areas and, as a result, have a number of similarities in their internal nutrient dynamics. Nitrogen concentrations in the reservoirs were highest in March and decreased through September as a result of dilution from river inflows and biological activity. From March through June, decreases in nitrogen concentrations in the river and biological activity contributed to decreases in reservoir concentrations. From July through September, inflows from the river were cut off, and biological activity in the reservoirs led to further decreases in nitrate concentrations, which fell to near or below detectable levels. Phosphorus concentrations in the reservoirs did not show the same consistent decrease from March through September. Phosphorus likely was recycled continuously back to algae during the study period through processes such as excretion from fish, decay of aquatic plants and animals, and release of orthophosphate from bottom sediment during periods of low oxygen. With the exception of phosphorus in Jackson Reservoir, the reservoirs acted as a sink for both nitrogen and phosphorus; the percentage of the total mass (initial storage plus inflows) trapped in the reservoirs during the study period ranged from 49 to 88 percent for nitrogen and from 20 to 86 percent for phosphorus.
The nutrient loading, morphology, and operation of the five reservoirs differed, however, leading to several important differences in nutrient dynamics among the reservoirs. Mean nutrient concentrations during the study period decreased in a downstream direction from Riverside Reservoir to Julesburg Reservoir because concentrations in the source water?the South Platte River?decreased downstream as a result of increased distance from wastewater loading upstream from Kersey, Colorado, and the replacement of diverted river water with more dilute ground-water return flow. North Sterling was an exception to this decrease; the strong stratification and resulting anoxia that developed in the reservoir led to nutrient release from the bottom sediments that offset the decrease in external nutrient loading.
Variations in nutrient loading also contributed to differences in the nutrient limiting algal growth in the reservoirs, as indicated by mass nitrogen:phosphorus ratios. In Riverside and Jackson Reservoirs, nitrogen became the potential limiting nutrient by midsummer as biological activity depleted the available supply of nitrogen while the high initial phosphorus load was recycled. Prewitt, North Sterling, and Julesburg Reservoirs, with lower initial loadings of phosphorus, were phosphorus-limited throughout the study period, with additional colimitation of nitrogen as biological uptake reduced nitrogen concentrations to near or below laboratory detection limits. The percentage of the total nitrogen and phosphorus mass lost through outflow and trapped in the reservoir due to processes such as biological uptake and sedimentation varied between reservoirs.Generally, reservoirs with short residence times such as North Ste