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Potomac tributary report: A summary of trends in tidal water quality and associated factors

December 18, 2020

The Potomac Tributary Report summarizes change over time in a suite of monitored tidal water quality parameters and associated potential drivers of those trends for the time period 1985 – 2018, and provides a brief description of the current state of knowledge explaining these observed changes. Water quality parameters described include surface total nitrogen (TN), surface total phosphorus (TP), spring and summer surface chlorophyll a, summer bottom dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations, and Secchi disk depth (a measure of water clarity). Results for annual surface water temperature, bottom TP, bottom TN, surface ortho-phosphate (PO4), surface dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN), surface total suspended solids (TSS), and summer surface DO concentrations are provided in an Appendix. Drivers discussed include physiographic watershed characteristics, changes in N, P, and sediment loads from the watershed to tidal waters, expected effects of changing land use, and implementation of nutrient management and natural resource conservation practices. Factors internal to estuarine waters that also play a role as drivers are described including biogeochemical processes, physical forces such as wind-driven mixing of the water column, and biological factors such as phytoplankton biomass and the presence of submersed aquatic vegetation.

Total nutrient concentrations have been decreasing at most stations in the Potomac River over the long-term, with improvements persisting in the last 10 years as well. These trends follow from the decreasing discharge from TN and TP sources in the watershed. The TP source reductions are not as apparent in the direct loads to the river, which may be part of the reason that tidal nutrient concentrations are not decreasing at as many stations in the short-term as the long-term. While degrading chlorophyll a and Secchi depth trends at several Potomac monitoring stations are concerning, recent improvements in summer oxygen concentrations are promising. The findings that chlorophyll a concentrations in the lower Potomac have either leveled out or improved may suggest a smaller amount of phytoplankton biomass available to fuel summer oxygen depletion. The responses of chlorophyll a, Secchi depth, and bottom DO are mixed in the Potomac tidal waters, but there are multiple possible reasons for this lag in response. Continuing to track water quality response and investigating these possibilities are important steps to understanding water quality patterns and changes in the Potomac River.

Publication Year 2020
Title Potomac tributary report: A summary of trends in tidal water quality and associated factors
Authors Jennifer L. Keisman, Rebecca Murphy, Olivia H. Devereux, J. Harcum, R. Karrh, M. Lane, E. Perry, James S. Webber, Zhaoying Wei, Qian Zhang, Meghan Nicole Petenbrink
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype Other Government Series
Index ID 70216971
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Maryland-Delaware-District of Columbia Water Science Center