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Seasonally dynamic nutrient modeling quantifies storage lags and time-varying reactivity across large river basins

August 24, 2021

Nutrients that have gradually accumulated in soils, groundwaters, and river sediments in the United States over the past century can remobilize and increase current downstream loading, obscuring effects of conservation practices aimed at protecting water resources. Drivers of storage accumulation and release of nutrients are poorly understood at the spatial scale of basins to watersheds. Predicting water quality outcomes in large river basins demands modeling storage lags and time varying reactivity that models of mean conditions typically cannot elucidate. We developed a seasonally dynamic approach to large-scale nutrient modeling based on a multiscale framework and nutrient storage lags were quantified for the nearly 190 000 small catchments that feed the rivers across the northeastern United States where catchment mean transit times were found to be around 4.7 (2–10) years for nitrogen and 1.3 (0.7–2) years for phosphorus. Nutrient loads carried in river flow in the current season contained a significant—and sometimes dominant—portion of mass lagged in its release from catchment storage repositories. Our approach of integrating storage releases with seasonally dynamic hydroclimatic drivers sets the stage to assess the accumulated effects of nutrient storage and lagged releases to the river interacting with seasonally varying nutrient reactivity and societal management actions throughout large river basins.