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Responses of physical, chemical, and biological indicators of water quality to a gradient of agricultural land use in the Yakima River Basin, Washington

January 1, 2000

The condition of 25 stream sites in the Yakima River Basin, Washington, were assessed by the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Multimetric condition indices were developed and used to rank sites on the basis of physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. These indices showed that sites in the Cascades and Eastern Cascades ecoregions were largely unimpaired. In contrast, all but two sites in the Columbia Basin ecoregion were impaired, some severely. Agriculture (nutrients and pesticides) was the primary factor associated with impairment and all impaired sites were characterized by multiple indicators of impairment. All indices of biological condition (fish, invertebrates, and algae) declined as agricultural intensity increased. The response exhibited by invertebrates and algae suggested a threshold response with conditions declining precipitously at relatively low levels of agricultural intensity and little response at moderate to high levels of agricultural intensity. This pattern of response suggests that the success of mitigation will vary depending upon where on the response curve the mitigation is undertaken. Because the form of the community condition response is critical to effective water-quality management, the National Water-Quality Assessment Program is conducting studies to examine the response of biota to gradients of land-use intensity and the relevance of these responses to water-quality management. These land-use gradient pilot studies will be conducted in several urban areas starting in 1999.