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Catchment-level estimates of nitrogen and phosphorus agricultural use from commercial fertilizer sales for the conterminous United States, 2012

February 26, 2019

Nutrient inputs from commercial agricultural fertilizer, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus, are important factors contributing to the degradation of surface-water quality and the alteration of aquatic ecosystems. Despite this importance, information about the application of fertilizer to agricultural land is not available in a consistent manner across the United States at a scale useful for regional water-quality assessment. To address this need, an approach is developed to relate commercial fertilizer sales to a set of explanatory variables using spatially referenced modeling methods. Spatially referenced modeling in this study refers to statistically relating fertilizer use, estimated from commercial fertilizer sales data, to spatially referenced data on watershed attributes. Separate models for nitrogen and phosphorus are developed to estimate elemental fertilizer use on agricultural lands for the conterminous United States at the National Hydrography Dataset Plus (NHDPlus) catchment scale for the year 2012. The approach builds on earlier efforts that use Association of American Plant Food Control Officials data on fertilizer sales to provide county-level estimates of nitrogen and phosphorus fertilizer use. The spatially referenced method improves on these efforts by allowing for varying nitrogen to phosphorus ratios at the catchment scale and expanding the set of variables used to allocate county-level sales data to the catchment scale. The models include catchment-level factors that are either primary determinants of fertilizer use, such as the acreage of different crop types, or measures reflecting the intensity of use, such as climate. Explanatory variables available only at the county scale, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture Census of Agriculture estimates of fertilizer expenditures, are included to improve the model predictions of elemental use. The nitrogen and phosphorus models explain more than 90 percent of the variation in elemental use at the state level, and the statistical approach allows for the estimation of uncertainty of predicted use in each catchment. The spatial patterns of model predictions reflect known agricultural cropping practices across the United States that transcend political boundaries, despite the county/state orientation of the fertilizer sales information. The results are expected to be useful for a variety of water-quality assessments that are intended to estimate nitrogen and phosphorus loads to streams.

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