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Nutrient concentrations and their relations to the biotic integrity of wadeable streams in Wisconsin

June 19, 2006

Excessive nutrient (phosphorus and nitrogen) loss from watersheds is frequently associated with degraded water quality in streams. To reduce this loss, agricultural performance standards and regulations for croplands and livestock operations are being proposed by various States. In addition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is establishing regionally based nutrient criteria that can be refined by each State to determine whether actions are needed to improve a stream's water quality. More confidence in the environmental benefits of the proposed performance standards and nutrient criteria will be possible with a better understanding of the biotic responses to a range of nutrient concentrations in different environmental settings.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources collected data from 240 wadeable streams throughout Wisconsin to: 1) describe how nutrient concentrations and biotic-community structure vary throughout the State; 2) determine which environmental characteristics are most strongly related to the distribution of nutrient concentrations; 3) determine reference water-quality and biotic conditions for different areas of the State; 4) determine how the biotic community of streams in different areas of the State respond to changes in nutrient concentrations; 5) determine the best regionalization scheme to describe the patterns in reference conditions and the responses in water quality and the biotic community; and 6) develop new indices to estimate nutrient concentrations in streams from a combination of biotic indices. The ultimate goal of this study is to provide the information needed to guide the development of regionally based nutrient criteria for Wisconsin streams.

For total nitrogen (N) and suspended chlorophyll (SCHL) concentrations and water clarity, regional variability in reference conditions and in the responses in water quality to changes in land use are best described by subdividing wadeable streams into two categories: streams in areas with high clay-content soils (Environmental Phosphorus Zone 3, EPZ 3) and streams throughout the rest of the State. The regional variability in the response in total phosphorus (P) concentrations is also best described by subdividing the streams into these two categories; however, little consistent variability was found in reference P concentrations in streams throughout the State.

Reference P concentrations are smilar throughout the State (0.03-0.04 mg/L). Reference N concentrations are divided into two categories: 0.6-0.7 mg/L in all streams except those in areas with high clay-content soils, where 0.4 mg/L is more appropriate. Reference SCHL concentrations are divided into two categories: 1.2-1.7 ?g/L in all streams except those in areas with high clay-content soils, where 1.0 ?g/L may be more appropriate. Reference water clarity is divided into two categories: streams in areas with high clay-content soils with a lower reference water clarity (Secchi tube depth, SD, of about 110 cm) and streams throughout the rest of the State (SD greater than or equal to about 115 cm). For each category of the biotic community (SCHL and benthic chlorophyll a concentrations (BCHL), periphytic diatoms, macroinvertebrates, and fish), a few biotic indices were more related to differences in nutrient concentrations than were others. For each of the indices more strongly related to nutrient concentrations, reference conditions were obtained by determining values corresponding to the worst 75th percentile value from a subset of minimally impacted streams (streams having reference nutrient concentrations).

By examining the biotic community in streams having either reference P or N concentrations but not both, the relative importance of these two nutrients was determined. For SCHL, P was the more important limiting nutrient; however, for BCHL and all macroinvertebrate indices, it appears that N was the more important nutrient when concent

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