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Analysis of trends of water quality and streamflow in the Blackstone, Branch, Pawtuxet, and Pawcatuck Rivers, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, 1979 to 2015

February 21, 2017

Trends in long-term water-quality and streamflow data from six water-quality-monitoring stations within three major river basins in Massachusetts and Rhode Island that flow into Narragansett Bay and Little Narragansett Bay were evaluated for water years 1979–2015. In this study, conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, the Rhode Island Water Resources Board, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, water-quality and streamflow data were evaluated with a Weighted Regressions on Time, Discharge, and Season smoothing method, which removes the effects of year-to-year variation in water-quality conditions due to variations in streamflow (discharge). Trends in annual mean, annual median, annual maximum, and annual 7-day minimum flows at four continuous streamgages were evaluated by using a time-series smoothing method for water years 1979–2015.

Water quality at all monitoring stations changed over the study period. Decreasing trends in flow-normalized nutrient concentrations and loads were observed during the period at most monitoring stations for total nitrogen, nitrite plus nitrate, and total phosphorus. Average flow-normalized loads for water years 1979–2015 decreased in the Blackstone River by up to 46 percent in total nitrogen, 17 percent in nitrite plus nitrate, and 69 percent in total phosphorus. The other rivers also had decreasing flow-normalized trends in nutrient concentrations and loads, except for the Pawtuxet River, which had an increasing trend in nitrite plus nitrate. Increasing trends in flow-normalized chloride concentrations and loads were observed during the study period at all of the rivers, with increases of more than 200 percent in the Blackstone River.

Small increasing trends in annual mean daily streamflow were observed in 3 of the 4 rivers, with increases of 1.2 to 11 percent; however, the trends were not significant. All 4 rivers had decreases in streamflow for the annual 7-day minimums, but only 3 of the 4 rivers had decreases that were significant (34 to 54 percent). The Branch River had decreasing annual mean daily streamflow (7.5 percent) and the largest decrease in the annual 7-day minimum streamflow. The Blackstone and Pawtuxet Rivers had the largest increases in annual maximum daily flows but had decreases in the annual 7-day minimum flows.