Spatial and temporal variations in concentrations and loads of suspended sediment and nutrients in surface water of the Yakima River Basin were assessed using data collected during 1999?2000 as part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. Samples were collected at 34 sites located throughout the Basin in August 1999 using a Lagrangian sampling design, and also were collected weekly and monthly from May 1999 through January 2000 at three of the sites. Nutrient and sediment data collected at various time intervals from 1973 through 2001 by the USGS, Bureau of Reclamation, Washington State Department of Ecology, and Roza-Sunnyside Board of Joint Control were used to assess trends in concentrations.
During irrigation season (mid-March to mid-October), concentrations of suspended sediment and nutrients in the Yakima River increase as relatively pristine water from the forested headwaters moves downstream and mixes with discharges from streams, agricultural drains, and wastewater treatment plants. Concentrations of nutrients also depend partly on the proportions of mixing between river water and discharges: in years of ample water supply in headwater reservoirs, more water is released during irrigation season and there is more dilution of nutrients discharged to the river downstream. For example, streamflow from river mile (RM) 103.7 to RM 72 in August 1999 exceeded streamflow in July 1988 by a factor of almost 2.5, but loads of total nitrogen and phosphorus discharged to the reach from streams, drains, and wastewater treatment plants were only 1.2 and 1.1 times larger.
In years of ample water supply, canal water, which is diverted from either the Yakima or Naches River, makes up more of the flow in drains and streams carrying agricultural return flows. The canal water dilutes nutrients (especially nitrate) transported to the drains and streams in runoff from fields and in discharges from subsurface field drains and the shallow ground-water system. The average concentration of total nitrogen in drains and streams discharging to the Yakima River from RM 103.7 to RM 72 in August 1999 was 2.63 mg/L, and in July 1988 was 3.16 mg/L; average concentrations of total phosphorus were 0.20 and 0.26 mg/L.
After irrigation season, streamflow in agricultural drains decreases because irrigation water is no longer diverted from the Yakima and Naches Rivers. As a result, concentrations of total nitrogen in drains increase because nitrate, which constitutes much of total nitrogen, continues to enter the drains from subsurface drains and shallow ground water. Concentrations of total phosphorus and suspended sediment often decrease, because they are transported to the drains in runoff of irrigation water from fields. In Granger Drain, concentrations of total nitrogen ranged from 2-4 mg/L during irrigation season and increased to about 6 mg/L after irrigation season, and concentrations of total phosphorus, as high as 1 mg/L, decreased to about 0.2 mg/L.
In calendar year 1999, Moxee Drain transported an average of 28,000 lb/d (pounds per day) of suspended sediment, 380 lb/d of total nitrogen, and 46 lb/d of total phosphorus to the Yakima River. These loads were about half the average loads transported by Granger Drain during the same period. Average streamflows were similar for the two drains, so the difference in loads was due to differences in constituent concentrations: those in Moxee Drain were about 40-60 percent less than those in Granger Drain.
Loads of suspended sediment and total phosphorus in Moxee and Granger Drains were nearly four times higher during irrigation season than during the non-irrigation season because with increased flow during irrigation season, concentrations of suspended sediment and total phosphorus are usually higher. Loads of nitrate in the drains were about the same in both seasons because nitrate concentrations are higher during the non-irrigation season.