Environmental Management

, Volume 49, Issue 1, pp 253-266

First online:

Evaluation of Progress in Achieving TMDL Mandated Nitrogen Reductions in the Neuse River Basin, North Carolina

  • Martin E. LeboAffiliated withWeyerhaeuser Company Email author 
  • , Hans W. PaerlAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • , Benjamin L. PeierlsAffiliated withInstitute of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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Management efforts to control excess algal growth in the Neuse River and Estuary, North Carolina began in the 1980s, with an initial focus on phosphorus (P) input reduction. However, continued water quality problems in the 1990s led to development of a Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) for nitrogen (N) in 1999 to improve conditions in N-sensitive estuarine waters. Evaluation of the effectiveness of management actions implemented in the Neuse River basin is a challenging endeavor due to natural variations in N export associated with climate. A simplified approach is presented that allows evaluation of trends in flow-normalized nutrient loading to provide feedback on effectiveness of implemented actions to reduce N loading to estuarine waters. The approach is applied to five watershed locations, including the headwaters of the Neuse Estuary. Decreases in nitrate + nitrite (NO3–N) concentrations occurred throughout the basin and were largest just downstream of the Raleigh metropolitan area. Conversely, concentrations of total Kjeldahl N (TKN) increased at many stations, particularly under high flow conditions. This indicates a relative increase in organic N (Org-N) inputs since the mid-1990s. Overall, patterns in different N fractions at watershed stations indicate both partial success in reducing N inputs and ongoing challenges for N loading under high flow conditions. In downstream waters, NO3–N concentrations decreased concurrent with TMDL implementation in the upper portion of the estuary but not in the middle and lower reaches. The lack of progress in the middle and lower reaches of the estuary may, at least in part, be affected by remineralization of settled particle-bound N deposited under high river flows.


TMDL Nutrient management Eutrophication Nitrogen Phosphorus Trends