, Volume 4, Issue 1, pp 77-90

First online:

Chesapeake Bay nutrient budgets — a reassessment

  • Scott W. NixonAffiliated withGraduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island

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Recently published annual mass balances or budgets for nitrogen, phosphorus, and silicon in Chesapeake Bay have pictured the estuary as retaining a very large fraction, perhaps all, of the nutrients that enter from land drainage, the atmosphere, and anthropogenic discharges. However, these budgets have been based on estimates of the net exchanges of nutrients at the mouth of the bay or on the rates of accumulation of nutrients and sediments calculated from the distributions of various geochemical tracers in the sediments. While conceptually straightforward, the first approach is subject to large errors because it requires the determination of a small "signal" against a large background of tidal "noise". The second approach has led to overestimates of the nutrient trapping efficiency of the bay because tracer-derived sediment deposition rates have been multiplied by the surface area of the whole bay or various parts of the bay rather than by the smaller area of active sediment deposition. This approach is also incorrect because the average, long-term rates of sediment deposition measured by the geochemical tracers, including major floods, have been compared to shorter-term records of nutrient input.

The more appropriate calculation of nutrient retention based on contemporaneous measurements of nutrient and sediment input and the chemical compositon of sediments accumulated in the estuary shows that Chesapeake Bay retains only some 3–6% of the nitrogen, 11–17% of the phosphorus and 33–83% of the silicon brought into its waters during a year in which no major flood occurred.

This behavior suggests that current problems of estuarine eutrophication are more a consequence of present nutrient inputs than an inevitable or inescapable legacy of past enrichment. It also follows that the management or manipulation of nutrient loadings to esturies may lead to a more rapid response in environmental quality than previously predicted.

Key words

Chesapeake Bay nutrients eutrophication estuary nitrogen phosphorus silicon sediments