Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Evaluating drivers of hydrology, water quality, and benthic macroinvertebrates in streams of Fairfax County, Virginia, 2007–18

May 18, 2023

In 2007, the U.S. Geological Survey partnered with Fairfax County, Virginia, to establish a long-term water-resources monitoring program to evaluate the hydrology, water quality, and ecology of Fairfax County streams and the watershed-scale effects of management practices. Fairfax County uses a variety of management practices, policies, and programs to protect and restore its water resources, but the effects of such strategies are not well understood. This report used streamflow, water-quality, and ecological monitoring data collected from 20 Fairfax County watersheds from 2007 through 2018 to assess the effects of management practices, landscape factors, and climatic conditions on observed nutrient, sediment, salinity, and benthic-macroinvertebrate community responses.

Urbanization, climatic variability, and an increase in management practices occurred within Fairfax County during the study period. Impervious cover, housing units, wastewater infrastructure, and (or) stormwater infrastructure increased in most study watersheds. Climatic conditions varied among study years; countywide estimates of average-annual air temperature differed by about 3 degrees Celsius, and total precipitation ranged from about 34 to 63 inches per year. The effects of the management practices, implemented to reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, and (or) sediment loads, are considered in this study. These management practices primarily consist of stormwater retrofits and stream restorations; however, stream restorations account for most of the financial investment and expected load reductions. Management practices were implemented in half of the study watersheds, and most practices were installed and reductions credited late in the study period.

Changes in hydrologic response during storm events were evaluated over the study period because many management practices that were implemented were designed to achieve nutrient and sediment reductions by slowing or intercepting runoff. The average number and length of storm events was mostly unchanged throughout the monitoring network. Four watersheds with 10 years of streamflow data showed a mixture of trends in stormflow peak, volume, and rate-of-change. Event-mean nutrient and sediment concentrations from these watersheds were evaluated during storm events and generally showed increases in total phosphorus (TP) and suspended sediment and reductions or no changes in total nitrogen (TN).

Landscape inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus and the percentage of inputs delivered to streams were estimated for the study watersheds. Estimated phosphorus from fertilizer and nitrogen from atmospheric deposition represented large nutrient inputs in most watersheds; amounts of other nonpoint sources varied based on land use. Estimated nitrogen inputs declined throughout Fairfax County and in most study watersheds from 2008 through 2018; in comparison, phosphorus input changes were relatively small. Most nonpoint-nutrient inputs were retained on the landscape and did not reach streams, with slightly more nitrogen retention than phosphorus, on average. Retention rates were lower for years with more precipitation and streamflow. After adjusting for streamflow, TN and TP loads were generally higher for years with more nutrient inputs. Calculated as a function of flow-adjusted loads, TP retention declined at most stations from 2009 through 2018, in comparison, TN retention was relatively unchanged.

Landscape and climatic conditions affected spatial differences and changes in Fairfax County stream conditions from 2009 through 2018. TN concentrations were higher and increases over time were larger in watersheds with elevated septic-system density. TP concentrations were higher in watersheds with more turfgrass; concentrations were lower, but had larger increases over time, in watersheds with deeper soils. Suspended-sediment concentrations were higher in watersheds with greater stream densities. Specific conductance was higher in watersheds with more developed land use and shallower soils. Benthic-macroinvertebrate index of biotic integrity (IBI) scores were lower in watersheds with high road density and had larger increases over time in bigger, more developed watersheds. Annual variability in TN and TP concentrations and benthic-macroinvertebrate IBI scores was affected by precipitation; annual variability in suspended sediment concentrations and specific conductance was affected by air temperature.

After accounting for influences from landscape and climatic conditions, expected management-practice effects were not consistently observed in monitored stream responses. These effects were assessed by comparing expected management-practice load reductions with the timing, direction, and magnitude of changes in storm-event hydrology, nutrient and sediment loads, median-annual water-quality conditions, and benthic-macroinvertebrate IBI scores. An important consideration for future investigations of management-practice effects is how to control for water-quality and ecological variability caused by geologic properties, the urban environment, precipitation, and (or) air temperature. The interpretation of management-practice effects in this report was likely influenced by a combination of factors, including (1) the amount, timing, and location of management-practice implementation; (2) unmeasured landscape and climatic factors; (3) uncertain management-practice expectations; (4) hydrologic variability; and (5) analytical assumptions. Through continued data-collection efforts, particularly after management practices have been completed, many of these factors may become less influential in the future.

Publication Year 2023
Title Evaluating drivers of hydrology, water quality, and benthic macroinvertebrates in streams of Fairfax County, Virginia, 2007–18
DOI 10.3133/sir20235027
Authors James S. Webber, Jeffrey G. Chanat, Aaron J. Porter, John D. Jastram
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2023-5027
Index ID sir20235027
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Virginia and West Virginia Water Science Center