, Volume 185, Issue 11, pp 9343-9359
Date: 29 May 2013

Evaluation of stream chemistry trends in US Geological Survey reference watersheds, 1970–2010

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Abstract

The Hydrologic Benchmark Network (HBN) is a long-term monitoring program established by the US Geological Survey in the 1960s to track changes in the streamflow and stream chemistry in undeveloped watersheds across the USA. Trends in stream chemistry were tested at 15 HBN stations over two periods (1970–2010 and 1990–2010) using the parametric Load Estimator (LOADEST) model and the nonparametric seasonal Kendall test. Trends in annual streamflow and precipitation chemistry also were tested to help identify likely drivers of changes in stream chemistry. At stations in the northeastern USA, there were significant declines in stream sulfate, which were consistent with declines in sulfate deposition resulting from the reductions in SO2 emissions mandated under the Clean Air Act Amendments. Sulfate declines in stream water were smaller than declines in deposition suggesting sulfate may be accumulating in watershed soils and thereby delaying the stream response to improvements in deposition. Trends in stream chemistry at stations in other part of the country generally were attributed to climate variability or land disturbance. Despite declines in sulfate deposition, increasing stream sulfate was observed at several stations and appeared to be linked to periods of drought or declining streamflow. Falling water tables might have enhanced oxidation of organic matter in wetlands or pyrite in mineralized bedrock thereby increasing sulfate export in surface water. Increasing sulfate and nitrate at a station in the western USA were attributed to release of soluble salts and nutrients from soils following a large wildfire in the watershed.