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Characterization of streamflow and nutrient occurrence in the upper White River Basin, Colorado, 1980–2020

March 31, 2023

In 2016, Colorado Parks and Wildlife identified filamentous algae collected from the main stem White River as Cladophora glomerata, a pervasive nuisance aquatic alga. Excessive levels of filamentous algae can compromise aesthetic quality, limit recreational activities, and have negative effects on aquatic life including strong fluctuations in dissolved oxygen levels and a reduction in overall biodiversity. To increase understanding of the biology of the upper White River Basin in Colorado, identify potential factors promoting or limiting nuisance algal abundance, and outline information to aid in the understanding and protection of water resources, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), in cooperation with the White River and Douglas Creek Conservation Districts and the White River Algae Technical Advisory Group, initiated a study to collect and analyze physical, chemical, and biological information for the upper White River Basin. The report describes long-term changes and spatial variations in streamflow and nutrient concentrations and loads in the upper White River Basin and identifies possible nutrient sources in the basin.

Long-term streamflow and nutrient data indicate that conditions in the upper White River Basin have become more favorable to benthic algae over varying timescales. Upward trends in total phosphorus concentrations and loads were found at three sites across the basin from 2000 to 2020. Total phosphorus loads increased around 50 percent, ranging from 18 to 48 pounds per year. Annual estimated concentrations of total phosphorus from 2005 to 2020 were above algal-specific nutrient criteria at the North Fork White River at Buford, Colo., indicating that phosphorus concentrations at this site likely promote algal growth. Discrete concentrations of total phosphorus exceeded algal-specific nutrient criteria on the South Fork and main stem White River during the summer season, though less frequently than samples collected from the North Fork White River. Nitrogen to phosphorus molar ratios collected from July to September indicate movement from colimitation (10–22) to nitrogen limited (less than 13) conditions at the North Fork White River at Buford, Colo. and the South Fork White River at Buford, Colo. starting in 2012. The magnitude of trends in phosphorus loads were generally greater than trends in concentrations across all sites, indicating that the largest changes in concentrations occurred during greater streamflow periods.

At White River above Coal Creek, near Meeker, Colo., significant downward trends in streamflow were found in August and September for mean streamflow (15 and 14 percent per decade, respectively) and 7-day minimum streamflows (23 and 22 percent per decade, respectively). Significant downward trends in annual 7-day minimum streamflows of 24 percent per decade, or 66 percent over the 40-year period of analysis, were also observed. Though not significant based on 90-percent confidence intervals, downward trends in 1-day maximum and mean streamflows in May and June and corresponding increases in April may indicate a shift toward earlier snowmelt runoff, as observed across western North America and the Colorado River Basin. Alteration of the annual hydrograph can influence factors that influence algae including nutrient input and dilution potential, water temperature, dissolved oxygen, light availability, and physical disturbance.

Results from a synoptic-style sampling identified the lower North Fork White River subbasin as a large source of phosphorus to the downstream system. Large increases in phosphorus loads were observed below Marvine Creek. Synoptic samples and samples collected during spring and summer of 2019 and 2020 also show large increases in total nitrogen, orthophosphate, and total phosphorus occurring at the furthest three downstream sites on the White River. To further evaluate sources of nitrogen in the upper White River Basin, the dual isotopic composition of nitrate was compared across four sites. The isotopic compositions of nitrate were all within the expected range of typical soil-derived nitrate, though the same values can also be derived from a mixture of agricultural fertilizer and manure or septic sources.

Publication Year 2023
Title Characterization of streamflow and nutrient occurrence in the upper White River Basin, Colorado, 1980–2020
DOI 10.3133/sir20225112
Authors Natalie K. Day
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5112
Index ID sir20225112
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Colorado Water Science Center; Southwest Biological Science Center