Environmental Management

, Volume 44, Issue 3, pp 505–523 | Cite as

Long-Term Effects of Changing Land Use Practices on Surface Water Quality in a Coastal River and Lagoonal Estuary

  • Meghan B. Rothenberger
  • JoAnn M. Burkholder
  • Cavell Brownie


The watershed of the Neuse River, a major tributary of the largest lagoonal estuary on the U.S. mainland, has sustained rapid growth of human and swine populations. This study integrated a decade of available land cover and water quality data to examine relationships between land use changes and surface water quality. Geographic Information Systems (GIS) analysis was used to characterize 26 subbasins throughout the watershed for changes in land use during 1992–2001, considering urban, agricultural (cropland, animal as pasture, and densities of confined animal feed operations [CAFOs]), forested, grassland, and wetland categories and numbers of wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). GIS was also used together with longitudinal regression analysis to identify specific land use characteristics that influenced surface water quality. Total phosphorus concentrations were significantly higher during summer in subbasins with high densities of WWTPs and CAFOs. Nitrate was significantly higher during winter in subbasins with high numbers of WWTPs, and organic nitrogen was higher in subbasins with higher agricultural coverage, especially with high coverage of pastures fertilized with animal manure. Ammonium concentrations were elevated after high precipitation. Overall, wastewater discharges in the upper, increasingly urbanized Neuse basin and intensive swine agriculture in the lower basin have been the highest contributors of nitrogen and phosphorus to receiving surface waters. Although nonpoint sources have been emphasized in the eutrophication of rivers and estuaries such as the Neuse, point sources continue to be major nutrient contributors in watersheds sustaining increasing human population growth. The described correlation and regression analyses represent a rapid, reliable method to relate land use patterns to water quality, and they can be adapted to watersheds in any region.


Agriculture Estuary Eutrophication Land use Longitudinal regression models Urban Watershed 



Funding support for this research was provided by the University of North Carolina Water Resources Research Institute, North Carolina Sea Grant, the U.S. Marine Air Station at Cherry Point (U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health), the Park Foundation, the North Carolina General Assembly, and the Department of Plant Biology and the Department of Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. We thank Jeff Essic and Thomas Colson for GIS guidance and support; Alexa McKerrow for help in interpreting and comparing land use classes among datasets; Mike Templeton, Charles Weaver, Keith Larick, and Ed Hardee at the NC DENR–DWQ for providing and helping to rectify data on WWTPs, package plants, CAFOs, and SSLASs; Carol Kinder for technical and statistical support; and Tom Wentworth and Dave DeMaster for insightful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Meghan B. Rothenberger
    • 1
  • JoAnn M. Burkholder
    • 2
  • Cavell Brownie
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of BiologyLafayette CollegeEastonUSA
  2. 2.Center for Applied Aquatic EcologyNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA
  3. 3.Department of StatisticsNorth Carolina State UniversityRaleighUSA

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