, Volume 146, Issue 3, pp 293–309 | Cite as

Fertilizer, landscape features and climate regulate phosphorus retention and river export in diverse Midwestern watersheds

  • Evelyn Boardman
  • Mohammad Danesh-Yazdi
  • Efi Foufoula-Georgiou
  • Christine L. Dolph
  • Jacques C. FinlayEmail author


Non-point source pollution of phosphorus (P) is a primary cause of eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems, and poses a persistent management challenge due to the dynamic and poorly understood processes controlling the transport and transformation of P at the watershed scale. We examined phosphorus inputs, retention, and riverine losses in 62 diverse watersheds that included a wide range of land cover and use (minimally disturbed to human dominated) and human P inputs in Minnesota, USA. Fertilizer inputs from row crop cultivation were the dominant source of P to agricultural watersheds. A large majority of P inputs was retained in watershed soils or removed in agricultural products. However, fertilizer input was the most important factor associated with average annual river transport of total, dissolved, and particulate phosphorus (PP). Mean annual runoff increased total and dissolved P yields and decreased P retention. Dissolved P made up a significant portion of annual river loads at sites with high rates of P inputs and river TP export, with the ratio of dissolved to PP export increasing with crop cover and fertilizer inputs. PP export rose with larger extents of eroding bluffs near channels. Bluffs constitute only a small proportion of watershed area, but make a disproportionately high contribution to sediment loads due to their close proximity to river channels that are increasingly affected by human and climate-driven changes to river hydrology. Together, our results suggest that rising discharge and flow variability due to climate change and agricultural intensification coupled with high rates of P inputs will maintain elevated fluvial P export into the future. Without reductions in P inputs and reductions in both soluble P losses and stream bank erosion, reversal of water quality degradation will be difficult to achieve.


Phosphorus Watersheds Nutrient budget Eutrophication Legacy 



This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1209402 Water, Sustainability and Climate (WSC) Category 2, Collaborative: Climate and human dynamics as amplifiers of natural change: a framework for vulnerability assessment and mitigation planning, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture under a Clean Water Fund Grant: Measuring and Modeling Watershed Phosphorus Loss and Transport for Improved Management of Agricultural Landscapes.

Supplementary material

10533_2019_623_MOESM1_ESM.docx (26 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 26 kb)
10533_2019_623_MOESM2_ESM.docx (269 kb)
Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 269 kb)


  1. Baker A (2018) Phosphorus-sediment interactions and their implications for watershed scale phosphorus dynamics in the Le Sueur River Basin. Masters Thesis. University of Minnesota, Saint Paul, p 122Google Scholar
  2. Belmont P, Gran KB, Schottler SP, Wilcock PR, Day SS, Jennings C, Lauer JW, Viparelli E, Willenbring JK, Engstrom DR, Parker G (2011) Large shift in source of fine sediment in the Upper Mississippi River. Environ Sci Technol 45:8804–8810Google Scholar
  3. Bennett EM, Reed-Andersen T, Houser JN, Gabriel JR, Carpenter SR (1999) A phosphorus budget for the Lake Mendota watershed. Ecosystems 2:69–75Google Scholar
  4. Bennett EM, Carpenter SR, Caraco NF (2001) Human impact on erodable phosphorus and eutrophication: a global perspective. Bioscience 51:227–234Google Scholar
  5. Boyer EW, Goodale CL, Jaworsk NA, Howarth RW (2002) Anthropogenic nitrogen sources and relationships to riverine nitrogen export in the northeastern USA. Biogeochemistry 57:137–169Google Scholar
  6. Burnham KP, Anderson DR (2002) Model selection and multi-model inference, 2nd edn. Springer, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  7. Carpenter SR, Caraco N, Correll DL, Howarth RW, Sharpley AN, Smith VH (1998) Nonpoint pollution of surface waters with phosphorus and nitrogen. Ecol Appl 8:559–568Google Scholar
  8. Chen D, Hu M, Guo Y, Dahlgren RA (2015) Influence of legacy phosphorus, land use, and climate change on anthropogenic phosphorus inputs and riverine export dynamics. Biogeochemistry 123:99–116Google Scholar
  9. Chen D, Zhang Y, Shen H, Yao M, Hu M, Dahlgren RA (2019) Decreased buffering capacity and increased recovery time for legacy phosphorus in a typical watershed in eastern China between 1960 and 2010. Biogeochemistry 144:273–290Google Scholar
  10. Crossman J, Eimers MC, Watmough SA, Futter MN, Kerr J, Baker SR, Dillon PJ (2016) Can recovery from disturbance explain observed declines in total phosphorus in Precambrian Shield catchments? Can J Fish Aquat Sci 73:1202–1212Google Scholar
  11. Danesh-Yazdi M, Foufoula-Georgiou E, Karwan DL, Botter G (2016) Inferring changes in water cycle dynamics of intensively managed landscapes via the theory of time-variant travel time distributions. Water Resour Res 52:7593–7614Google Scholar
  12. David MB, Gentry LE (2000) Anthropogenic inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus and riverine export from Illinois, USA. J Environ Qual 29:494–508Google Scholar
  13. Dietz RD, Engstrom DR, Anderson NJ (2015) Patterns and drivers of change in organic carbon burial across a diverse landscape: insights from 116 Minnesota lakes. Global Biogeochem Cycles 29:708–727Google Scholar
  14. Dillon PJ, Molot LA (1997) Effect of landscape form on export of dissolved organic carbon, iron, and phosphorus from forested stream catchments. Water Resour Res 33:2591–2600Google Scholar
  15. Dodd RJ, Sharpley AN (2015) Conservation practice effectiveness and adoption: unintended consequences and implications for sustainable phosphorus management. Nutr Cycl Agroecosyst 104:373–392Google Scholar
  16. Dolph CL, Boardman E, Danesh-Yazdi M, Finlay JC, Hansen AT, Baker AC, Dalzell B (2019) Phosphorus transport in intensively managed watersheds. Water Resour Res. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Dubrovsky NM, Burow KR, Clark GM, Gronberg JM, Hamilton PA, Hitt KJ, Mueller DK, Munn MD, Nolan BT, Puckett LJ, Rupert MG (2010) The quality of our Nation’s waters—nutrients in the Nation’s streams and groundwater, 1992–2004. U.S. Geological Survey Circular 1350Google Scholar
  18. Duncan EW, King KW, Williams MR, LaBarge G, Pease LA, Smith DR, Fausey NR (2017) Linking soil phosphorus to dissolved phosphorus losses in the Midwest. Agric Environ Lett. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Dupas R, Gruau G, Gu S, Humbert G, Jaffrézic A, Gascuel-Odoux C (2015) Groundwater control of biogeochemical processes causing phosphorus release from riparian wetlands. Water Res 84:307–314Google Scholar
  20. Eimers MC, Watmough SA, Paterson AM, Dillon PJ, Yao HX (2009) Long-term declines in phosphorus export from forested catchments in south-central Ontario. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 66:1682–1692Google Scholar
  21. Eimers MC, Hillis NP, Watmough SA (2018) Phosphorus deposition in a low-Phosphorus landscape: sources, accuracy and contribution to declines in surface water P. Ecosystems 21:782–794Google Scholar
  22. Foufoula-Georgiou E, Takbiri Z, Czuba JA, Schwenk J (2015) The change of nature and the nature of change in agricultural landscapes: hydrologic regime shifts modulate ecological transitions. Water Resour Res 51:6649–6671Google Scholar
  23. Fox GA, Purvis RA, Penn CJ (2016) Streambanks: a net source of sediment and phosphorus to streams and rivers. J Environ Manage 181:602–614Google Scholar
  24. Goyette JO, Bennett EM, Maranger R (2018) Low buffering capacity and slow recovery of anthropogenic phosphorus pollution in watersheds. Nat Geosci 11:921–925Google Scholar
  25. Gran KB, Belmont P, Day SS, Finnegan N, Jennings C, Lauer JW, Wilcock PR (2011) Landscape evolution in south-central Minnesota and the role of geomorphic history on modern erosional processes. GSA Today 21:7–9Google Scholar
  26. Gronberg JM, Spahr NE (2012) County-level estimates of nitrogen and phosphorus from commercial fertilizer for the Conterminous United States, 1987–2006: U.S. Geological Survey Scientific Investigations Report 2012: 5207.
  27. Grundtner A, Gupta S, Bloom P (2014) River bank materials as a source and as carriers of phosphorus to Lake Pepin. J Environ Qual 43:1991–2001Google Scholar
  28. Han H, Bosch N, Allan JD (2011) Spatial and temporal variation in phosphorus budgets for 24 watersheds in the Lake Erie and Lake Michigan basins. Biogeochemistry 102:45–58Google Scholar
  29. Hansen AT, Dolph CL, Foufoula-Georgiou E, Finlay JC (2018) Contribution of wetlands to nitrate removal at the watershed scale. Nat Geosci 11:127–132. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hartmann J, Moosdorf N, Lauerwald R, Hinderer M, West AJ (2014) Global chemical weathering and associated P-release—the role of lithology, temperature and soil properties. Chem Geol 363:145–163Google Scholar
  31. Haygarth PM, Page TJC, Beven KJ, Freer J, Joynes A, Butler P, Wood GA, Owens PN (2012) Scaling up the phosphorus signal from soil hillslopes to headwater catchments. Freshw Biol 57:7–25Google Scholar
  32. Haygarth PM, Jarvie HP, Powers SM, Sharpley AN, Elser JJ, Shen J, Peterson HM, Chan N-I, Howden NJK, Burt T, Worrall F, Zhang F, Liu X (2014) Sustainable phosphorus management and the need for a long-term perspective: the legacy hypothesis. Environ Sci Technol 48:8417–8419Google Scholar
  33. Heathcote AJ, Filstrup CT, Downing JA (2013) Watershed sediment losses to lakes accelerating despite agricultural soil conservation efforts. PLoS ONE 8:E53554Google Scholar
  34. Hobbie SE, Finlay JC, Janke BD, Nidzgorski DA, Millet DB, Baker LA (2017) Contrasting nitrogen and phosphorus budgets in urban watersheds and implications for managing urban water pollution. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 114:4177–4182Google Scholar
  35. Homer CG, Dewitz J, Yang L, Jin S, Danielson P, Xian GZ, Coulston J, Herold N, Wickham J, Megown K (2015) Completion of the 2011 National Land Cover Database for the conterminous United States: representing a decade of land cover change information. Photogramm Eng Remote Sens 81:345–354Google Scholar
  36. Hong B, Swaney DP, Howarth RW (2011) A toolbox for calculating net anthropogenic nitrogen inputs (NANI). Environ Model Softw 26:623–633Google Scholar
  37. Howarth RW, Billen G, Swaney D, Townsend A, Jaworski N, Lajtha K, Downing JA, Elmgren R, Caraco N, Jordan T, Berendse F, Freney J, Kudeyarov V, Murdoch P, Zhao-Liang Z (1996) Regional nitrogen budgets and riverine N and P fluxes for the drainages to the North Atlantic Ocean: natural and human influences. Biogeochemistry 35:75–139Google Scholar
  38. Howarth R, Swaney D, Billen G, Garnier J, Hong B, Humborg C, Johnes P, Morth C-M, Marino R (2012) Nitrogen fluxes from the landscape are controlled by net anthropogenic nitrogen inputs and by climate. Front Ecol Environ 10:37–43Google Scholar
  39. Jarvie HP, Johnson LT, Sharpley AN, Smith DR, Baker DB, Bruulsema TW, Confesor R (2017) Increased soluble phosphorus loads to Lake Erie: unintended consequences of conservation practices? J Environ Qual 46:123–132Google Scholar
  40. Jeppesen E, Sondergaard M, Jensen JP, Havens KE, Anneville O, Carvalho L, Coveney MF, Deneke R, Dokulil MT, Foy B, Gerdeaux D, Hampton SE, Hilt S, Kangur K, Kohler J, Lammens E, Lauridsen TL, Manca M, Miracle MR, Moss B, Noges P, Persson G, Phillips G, Portielje R, Schelske CL, Straile D, Tatrai I, Willen E, Winder M (2005) Lake responses to reduced nutrient loading—an analysis of contemporary long-term data from 35 case studies. Freshw Biol 50:1747–1771Google Scholar
  41. Jordan TE, Correll DL, Weller DE (1997) Relating nutrient discharges from watersheds to land use and streamflow variability. Water Resour Res 33:2579–2590Google Scholar
  42. Kelly SA, Takbiri Z, Belmont P, Foufoula-Georgiou E (2017) Human amplified changes in precipitation–runoff patterns in large river basins of the Midwestern United States. Hydrol Earth Syst Sci 21:5065–5088Google Scholar
  43. Landler CH, Moffitt D, Alt KF (1998) Nutrients available from livestock manure relative to crop growth requirements. Resource assessment and strategic planning working paper 98-1. United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation ServiceGoogle Scholar
  44. Menge DNL, Hedin LO, Pacala SW (2012) Nitrogen and phosphorus limitation over long-term ecosystem development in terrestrial ecosystems. PLoS ONE 7:e42045Google Scholar
  45. MNDNR (2016) National Wetlands Inventory Update. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, St. PaulGoogle Scholar
  46. MPCA (2004) Detailed assessment of phosphorus sources to Minnesota watersheds. Minnesota Pollution Control, St. PaulGoogle Scholar
  47. MPCA (2015) Watershed pollutant load monitoring network (WPLMN) standard operating procedures and guidance. Minnesota Pollution Control, St. PaulGoogle Scholar
  48. Oliver SK, Collins SM, Soranno PA, Wagner T, Stanley EH, Jones JR, Stow CA, Lottig NR (2017) Unexpected stasis in a changing world: lake nutrient and chlorophyll trends since 1990. Glob Change Biol 23:5455–5467Google Scholar
  49. Palviainen M, Laurén A, Launiainen S, Piirainen S (2016) Predicting the export and concentrations of organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus in boreal lakes by catchment characteristics and land use: a practical approach. Ambio 45:933–945Google Scholar
  50. Peterson HM, Baker LA, Bruening D, Nieber JL, Ulrich JS, Wilson BN (2017) Agricultural phosphorus balance calculator: a tool for watershed planning. J Soil Water Conserv 72:395–404Google Scholar
  51. Powers SM, Robertson DM, Stanley EH (2014) Effects of lakes and reservoirs on annual river nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment export in agricultural and forested landscapes. Hydrol Process 28:5919–5937Google Scholar
  52. Powers SM, Bruulsema TW, Burt TP, Chan NI, Elser JJ, Haygarth PM, Howden NJK, Jarvie HP, Lyu Y, Peterson HM, Sharpley AN, Shen J, Worrall F, Zhang F (2016) Long-term accumulation and transport of anthropogenic phosphorus in three river basins. Nat Geosci 9:353–356Google Scholar
  53. Randall GW, Iragavarapu TK, Schmitt MA (2000) Nutrient losses in subsurface drainage water from dairy manure and urea applied for corn. J Environ Qual 29:1244–1252Google Scholar
  54. Records RM, Wohl E, Arabi M (2016) Phosphorus in the river corridor. Earth Sci Rev 158:65–88Google Scholar
  55. Renwick WH, Vanni MJ, Fisher TJ, Morris EL (2018) Stream nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment concentrations show contrasting long-term trends associated with agricultural change. J Environ Qual 47:1513–1521Google Scholar
  56. Roberts WM, Stutter MI, Haygarth PM (2012) Phosphorus retention and remobilization in vegetated buffer strips: a review. J Environ Qual 41:389–399Google Scholar
  57. Russell MJ, Weller DE, Jordan TE, Sigwart KJ, Sullivan KJ (2008) Net anthropogenic phosphorus inputs: spatial and temporal variability in the Chesapeake Bay region. Biogeochemistry 88:285–304Google Scholar
  58. Schindler DW (2006) Recent advances in the understanding and management of eutrophication. Limnol Oceanogr 51:356–363Google Scholar
  59. Schottler SP, Ulrich J, Belmont P, Moore R, Lauer JW, Engstrom DR, Almendinger JE (2013) Twentieth century agricultural drainage creates more erosive rivers. Hydrol Process 28:1951–1961Google Scholar
  60. Sharpley A, Jarvie HP, Buda A, May L, Spears B, Kleinman P (2013) Phosphorus legacy: overcoming the effects of past management practices to mitigate future water quality impairment. J Environ Qual 42:1308–1326Google Scholar
  61. Smith VH, Joye SB, Howarth RW (2006) Eutrophication of freshwater and marine ecosystems. Limnol Oceanogr 51:351–355Google Scholar
  62. Smith DR, King KW, Johnson L, Francesconi W, Richards P, Baker D, Sharpley AN (2014) Surface runoff and tile drainage transport of phosphorus in the Midwestern United States. J Environ Qual 44:495–502Google Scholar
  63. Sobota DJ, Harrison JA, Dahlgren RA (2011) Linking dissolved and particulate phosphorus export in rivers draining California’s Central Valley with anthropogenic sources at the regional scale. J Environ Qual 40:1290–1302Google Scholar
  64. Swaney DP, Hong B (2017) Notes on NAPI calculator toolbox version 3.1.0. Elsevier, AmsterdamGoogle Scholar
  65. Tong Y, Zhang W, Wang X, Couture R-M, Larssen T, Zhao Y, Li J, Liang H, Liu X, Bu X, He W, Zhang Q, Lin Y (2017) Decline in Chinese lake phosphorus concentration accompanied by shift in sources since 2006. Nat Geosci 10:507–511Google Scholar
  66. USDA (2009) U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2007 Census of Agriculture.
  67. USFWS (2015) U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, National Wetlands Inventory website. U.S. Department of the Interior, Fish and Wildlife Service, Washington, D.C.
  68. Van Drecht G, Bouwman AF, Harrison J, Knoop JM (2009) Global nitrogen and phosphate in urban wastewater for the period 1970 to 2050. Glob Biogeochem Cycles. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Worrall F, Jarvie HP, Howden NJK, Burt TP (2016) The fluvial flux of total reactive and total phosphorus from the UK in the context of a national phosphorus budget: comparing UK river fluxes with phosphorus trade imports and exports. Biogeochemistry 130:31–51Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Ecology, Evolution and BehaviorUniversity of MinnesotaSt. PaulUSA
  2. 2.St. Anthony Falls LaboratoryUniversity of MinnesotaMinneapolisUSA
  3. 3.Fitzgerald Environmental Associates, LLCColchesterUSA
  4. 4.Department of Civil EngineeringSharif University of TechnologyTehranIran
  5. 5.Department of Civil and Environmental EngineeringUniversity of CaliforniaIrvineUSA

Personalised recommendations