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Climate extremes as drivers of surface-water-quality trends in the United States

December 5, 2021

Surface-water quality can change in response to climate perturbations, such as changes in the frequency of heavy precipitation or droughts, through direct effects, such as dilution and concentration, and through physical processes, such as bank scour. Water quality might also change through indirect mechanisms, such as changing water demand or changes in runoff interaction with organic matter on the landscape. Many studies predict future changes in water-quality related to climate changes; however, fewer studies specifically document changes in water quality related to changes in climate, and they are usually limited in geographic scope. Recently, the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Program reported nearly 12,000 trends in concentration and load for numerous water-quality constituents, including nutrients, sediment, major ions, and carbon. The results provide an unprecedented opportunity to examine sites across the conterminous United States for changes in water quality related to climate changes. We used published water-quality trends, modeled using the method of Weighted Regressions on Time, Season and Discharge, and calculated trends in climate extremes indices, using a modified Mann-Kendall trend method. The water-quality and the climate extremes trends were combined to identify areas in the conterminous United States where changes in climate extremes may have changed water quality. We investigated the water-quality trends in these areas to determine whether the trends related to changes in climate. We found that it was important to go beyond spatial correlation and examine trends on a watershed scale to investigate key drivers of trends. We found successful management practices in Iowa to reduce chloride concentrations, despite increases in icing days. For sediment, it appeared that management practices were having a larger effect than climate changes. For nutrients, complex forces affecting water quality make it difficult to unequivocally attribute water-quality change to climate change.