, Volume 25, Issue 4, pp 656-676

First online:

Sources of nutrient pollution to coastal waters in the United States: Implications for achieving coastal water quality goals

  • Robert W. HowarthAffiliated withMarine Biological Laboratory, The Ecosystems CenterDepartment of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Cornell University Email author 
  • , Andrew SharpleyAffiliated withAgricultural Research Service, Pasture Systems and Watersheds, U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • , Dan WalkerAffiliated withOceans Studies Board, The National AcademiesThe Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

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Some 60% of coastal rivers and bays in the U.S. have been moderately to severely degraded by nutrient pollution. Both nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) contribute to the problem, although for most coastal systems N additions cause more damage. Globally, human activity has increased the flux of N and P from land to the oceans by 2-fold and 3-fold, respectively. For N, much of this increase has occurred over the past 40 years, with the increase varying by region. Human activity has increased the flux of N in the Mississippi River basin by 4-fold, in the rivers of the northeastern U.S. by 8-fold, and in the rivers draining to the North Sea by more than 10-fold. The sources of nutrients to the coast vary. For some estuaries, sewage treatment plants are the largest single input; for most systems nonpoint sources of nutrients are now of relatively greater importance, both because of improved point source treatment and control (particularly for P) and because of increases in the total magnitude of nonpoint sources (particularly for N) over the past three decades. For P, agricultural activities dominate nonpoint source fluxes. Agriculture is also the major source of N in many systems, including the flux of N down the Mississippi River, which has contributed to the large hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico. For both P and N, agriculture contributes to nonpoint source pollution both through losses at the field scale, as soils erode away and fertilizer is leached to surface and ground waters, and from losses from animal feedlot operations. In the U.S. N from animal wastes that leaks directly to surface waters or is volatilized to the atmosphere as ammonia may be the single largest source of N that moves from agricultural operations into coastal waters. In some regions, including the northeastern U.S., atmospheric deposition of oxidized N from fossil-fuel combustion is the major flux from nonpoint sources. This atmospheric component of the N flux into estuaries has often been underestimated, particularly with respect to deposition onto the terrestrial landscape with subsequent export downstream. Because the relative importance of these nutrient sources varies among regions and sites, so too must appropriate and effective mitigation strategies. The regional nature and variability of nutrient sources require that nutrient management efforts address large geographic areas.