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Occurrence and transport of nitrogen in the Big Sunflower River, northwestern Mississippi, October 2009-June 2011

July 28, 2014

The Big Sunflower River Basin, located within the Yazoo River Basin, is subject to large annual inputs of nitrogen from agriculture, atmospheric deposition, and point sources. Understanding how nutrients are transported in, and downstream from, the Big Sunflower River is key to quantifying their eutrophying effects on the Gulf. Recent results from two Spatially Referenced Regressions on Watershed attributes (SPARROW models), which include the Big Sunflower River, indicate minimal losses of nitrogen in stream reaches typical of the main channels of major river systems. If SPARROW assumptions of relatively conservative transport of nitrogen are correct and surface-water losses through the bed of the Big Sunflower River are negligible, then options for managing nutrient loads to the Gulf of Mexico may be limited. Simply put, if every pound of nitrogen entering the Delta is eventually delivered to the Gulf, then the only effective nutrient management option in the Delta is to reduce inputs. If, on the other hand, it can be shown that processes within river channels of the Mississippi Delta act to reduce the mass of nitrogen in transport, other hydrologic approaches may be designed to further limit nitrogen transport. Direct validation of existing SPARROW models for the Delta is a first step in assessing the assumptions underlying those models.

In order to characterize spatial and temporal variability of nitrogen in the Big Sunflower River Basin, water samples were collected at four U.S. Geological Survey gaging stations located on the Big Sunflower River between October 1, 2009, and June 30, 2011. Nitrogen concentrations were generally highest at each site during the spring of the 2010 water year and the fall and winter of the 2011 water year. Additionally, the dominant form of nitrogen varied between sites. For example, in samples collected from the most upstream site (Clarksdale), the concentration of organic nitrogen was generally higher than the concentrations of ammonia and nitrate plus nitrite; conversely, at sites farther downstream (that is, at Sunflower and Anguilla), nitrate plus nitrite concentrations were generally higher than concentrations of organic nitrogen and ammonia.

In addition to the routinely collected samples, water samples from the Big Sunflower River Basin were collected using a Lagrangian sampling scheme, which attempts to follow a single mass of water through time in order to determine how it changes through processing or other pathways as the water moves downstream. Lagrangian sampling was conducted five times during the study period: (1) April 8–21, 2010, (2) May 12–June 3, 2010, (3) June 15–July 1, 2010, (4) August 23–30, 2010, and (5) May 16–20, 2011. Streamflow conditions were variable for each sampling event because of input from local precipitation and irrigation return flow, and streamflow losses through the streambed. Streamflow and total nitrogen flux increased with drainage area, and the dominant form of nitrogen varied with drainage area size and temporally across sampling events.

Results from each method indicate relatively conservative transport of nitrogen within the 160 miles between Clarksdale and Anguilla, providing further validation of the SPARROW models. Furthermore, these results suggest relatively conservative transport of nitrogen from the Big Sunflower River to the Gulf of Mexico and, therefore, imply a fairly close association of nutrient application and export from the Big Sunflower River Basin to the Mississippi River. However, within the Big Sunflower River Basin, two potential nitrogen sinks were identified and include the transport and potential transformation of nitrogen through the streambed and the sequestration and potential transformation of nitrogen above the drainage control structures downstream of Anguilla. By coupling these potential loss mechanisms with nitrogen transport dynamics, it may be possible to further reduce the amount of nitrogen leaving the Big Sunflower River Basin and ultimately arriving at the Gulf of Mexico.

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