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Concentration, flux, and trend estimates with uncertainty for nutrients, chloride, and total suspended solids in tributaries of Lake Champlain, 1990–2014

December 19, 2016

The U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, estimated daily and 9-month concentrations and fluxes of total and dissolved phosphorus, total nitrogen, chloride, and total suspended solids from 1990 (or first available date) through 2014 for 18 tributaries of Lake Champlain. Estimates of concentration and flux, provided separately in Medalie (2016), were made by using the Weighted Regressions on Time, Discharge, and Season (WRTDS) regression model and update previously published WRTDS model results with recent data. Assessment of progress towards meeting phosphorus-reduction goals outlined in the Lake Champlain management plan relies on annual estimates of phosphorus flux. The percent change in annual concentration and flux is provided for two time periods. The R package EGRETci was used to estimate the uncertainty of the trend estimate. Differences in model specification and function between this study and previous studies that used WRTDS to estimate concentration and flux using data from Lake Champlain tributaries are described.

Winter data were too sparse and nonrepresentative to use for estimates of concentration and flux but were sufficient for estimating the percentage of total annual flux over the period of record. Median winter-to-annual fractions ranged between 21 percent for total suspended solids and 27 percent for dissolved phosphorus. The winter contribution was largest for all constituents from the Mettawee River and smallest from the Ausable River.

For the full record (1991 through 2014 for total and dissolved phosphorus and chloride and 1993 through 2014 for nitrogen and total suspended solids), 6 tributaries had decreasing trends in concentrations of total phosphorus, and 12 had increasing trends; concentrations of dissolved phosphorus decreased in 6 and increased in 8 tributaries; fluxes of total phosphorus decreased in 5 and increased in 10 tributaries; and fluxes of dissolved phosphorus decreased in 4 and increased in 10 tributaries (where the number of increasing and decreasing trends does not add up to 18, the remainder of tributaries had no trends). Concentrations and fluxes of nitrogen decreased in 10 and increased in 4 tributaries and of chloride decreased in 2 and increased in 15 tributaries. Concentrations of total suspended solids decreased in 4 and increased in 8 tributaries, and fluxes of total suspended solids decreased in 3 and increased in 11 tributaries.

Although time intervals for the percent changes from this report are not completely synchronous with those from previous studies, the numbers of and specific tributaries with overall negative percent changes in concentration and flux are similar. Concentration estimates of total phosphorus in the Winooski River were used to trace whether changes in trends between a previous study and the current study were due generally to differences in model specifications or differences from 4 years of additional data. The Winooski River analysis illustrates several things: that keeping all model specifications equal, concentration estimates increased from 2010 to 2014; the effects of a smoothing algorithm used in the current study that was not available previously; that narrowing model half-window widths increased year-to-year variations; and that the change from an annual to a 9-month basis by omitting winter estimates changed a few individual points but not the overall shape of the flow-normalized curve. Similar tests for other tributaries showed that the primary effect of differences in model specifications between the previous and current studies was perhaps to increase scatter over time but that changes in trends generally were the result of 4 years of additional data rather than artifacts of model differences.