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Concentrations, and Estimated Loads and Yields of Total Nitrogen and Total Phosphorus at Selected Stations in Kentucky, 1979-2004

December 17, 2009

To evaluate the State's water quality, the Kentucky Division of Water collects data from a statewide network of primary ambient stream water-quality monitoring stations and flexible, rotating watershed-monitoring stations. This ambient stream water-quality monitoring network program is directed to assess the conditions of surface waters throughout Kentucky. Water samples were collected monthly for the majority of the stations from 1979 to 1998, which represented agricultural, undeveloped (mainly forested), and areas of mixed land use/land cover. In 1998, the number of water samples collected was reduced to a collection frequency of six times per year (every 2 months) every 4 of 5 years, because a new monitoring network was implemented involving a 5-year rotating Basin Management Unit scheme of monitoring. This report presents the results of a study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, in cooperation with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet-Kentucky Division of Water, to summarize concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorus and provide estimates of total nitrogen and total phosphorus loads and yields in 55 selected streams in Kentucky's ambient stream water-quality monitoring network, which was operated from 1979 through 2004.

Streams in predominately agricultural basins had higher concentrations of total nitrogen (TN) and concentrations of total phosphorus (TP) than streams in predominately undeveloped (forested) basins. Streams in basins in intensely developed karst areas characterized by caves, springs, sinkholes, and sinking streams had a higher median concentration of TN (1.5 milligrams per liter [mg/L]) than streams in basins with limited or no karst areas (0.63 mg/L). As with TN, median concentrations of TP also were higher in areas of intense karst (0.05 mg/L) than in areas with limited or no karst (0.02 mg/L).

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has recommended ecoregional nutrient water-quality criteria as a starting point for States to establish more precise numeric water-quality criteria for nutrients to protect aquatic life and recreational and other uses of rivers and streams. On the basis of the 25th percentile of concentration data from reference stations aggregated by ecoregion, the USEPA established recommended water-quality criteria for TN and TP in the two Aggregated Ecoregions (IX and XI) in Kentucky waters. The 25th percentile median values for TN and TP from this study exceeded the USEPA's recommendations in both aggregated ecoregions in the agricultural and mixed land-use/land-cover basins, and for TN in the undeveloped land-use/land-cover basins in Aggregated Ecoregion XI. However, the 25th percentile median values for TN (Aggregated Ecoregion IX) and TP in both aggregated ecoregions did not exceed the USEPA's recommendations in the undeveloped land-use/land-cover basins.

Estimated loads and yields of TN and TP varied substantially among the individual stations. Estimated mean annual yields of TN ranged from 0.10 [tons per year per square mile (ton/yr)/mi2] to 7.2 (ton/yr)/mi2, and estimated mean annual yields of TP ranged from 0.02 (ton/yr)/mi2 to 1.4 (ton/yr)/mi2. Estimated mean annual yields of TN and TP were generally highest at stations in predominately agricultural basins, and lowest at stations in undeveloped land-use/land-cover basins.