, Volume 26, Issue 3, pp 803-814

First online:

Sources of nitrogen to estuaries in the United States

  • Mark S. CastroAffiliated withAppalachian Laboratory Email author 
  • , Charles T. DriscollAffiliated withDepartment of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Syracuse University
  • , Thomas E. JordanAffiliated withSmithsonian Environmental Research Center
  • , William G. ReayAffiliated withCollege of William and Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science
  • , Walter R. BoyntonAffiliated withCenter for Environmental Science, Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, University of Maryland

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The purpose of this study was to quantify the nitrogen (N) inputs to 34 estuaries on the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States. Total nitrogen (TN) inputs ranged from 1 kg N ha−1 yr−1 for Upper Laguna Madre, Texas, to 49 kg N ha−1 yr−1 for Massachusetts Bay, Massachusetts. TN inputs to 11 of the 34 estuaries were dominated by urban N sources (point sources and septic systems) and nonpoint source N runoff (5% of total); point sources accounted for 36–86% of the TN inputs to these 11 urban-dominated estuaries. TN inputs to 20 of the 34 estuaries were dominated by agricultural N sources; N fertilization was the dominant source (46% of the total), followed by manure (32% of the total) and N fixation by crops (16% of the total). Atmospheric deposition (runoff from watershed plus direct deposition to the surface of the estuary) was the dominant N source for three estuaries (Barnegat Bay, New Jersey: 64%; St. Catherines-Sapelo, Georgia: 72%; and Barataria Bay, Louisiana: 53%). Six estuaries had atmospheric contributions ≥30% of the TN inputs (Casco Bay, Maine: 43%; Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts: 30%; Great Bay, New Jersey: 40%; Chesapeake Bay: 30%; Terrebonne-Timbalier Bay, Louisiana: 59%; and Upper Laguna Madre: 41%). Results from our study suggest that reductions in N loadings to estuaries should be accomplished by implementing watershed specific programs that target the dominant N sources.