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Sources, instream transport, and trends of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the lower Tennessee River basin, 1980-96

February 1, 2001

In 1997, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) began an assessment of the lower Tennessee River Basin as part of the National Water-Quality Assessment Program. Existing nutrient and sediment data from 1980 to 1996 were compiled, screened, and interpreted to estimate watershed inputs from nutrient sources, provide a general description of the distribution and transport of nutrients and sediments in surface water, and evaluate trends in nutrient and sediment concentrations in the lower Tennessee (LTEN) River Basin. Nitrogen inputs from major sources varied widely among tributary basins in the LTEN River Basin. Point source wastewater discharges contributed between 0 and 0.61 tons per square mile per year [(tons/mi2)/yr]. Of the nonpoint sources of nitrogen for which inputs were estimated (atmospheric deposition, nitrogen fixation, fertilizer application, and livestock waste) livestock waste contributed the largest input in about two-thirds (7 out of 11) of the tributary basins, and fertilizer application contributed the largest input in the remaining 4 basins. Nitrogen input from fertilizer application was the most variable spatially among the nonpoint sources of nitrogen, ranging from 1.5 to 23 (tons/mi2)/yr. Atmospheric deposition estimates varied the least from basin to basin, ranging from 1.6 to 2.0 (tons/mi2)/yr. Estimates of nitrogen input from livestock waste ranged between 2.0 to 13 (tons/mi2)/yr. The percentage of the input from each of these nonpoint sources that entered the surface-water system is not known. Wastewater discharge contributed between 0 and 0.14 (ton/mi2)/yr of phosphorus to tributary basins. Livestock waste contributed most of the input in 8 out of the 11 basins, and fertilizer application contributed the most in the remaining 3 basins. Estimates of phosphorus input for fertilizer application ranged from 0.35 to 5.1 (tons/mi2)/yr and from 0.62 to 4.3 (tons/mi2)/yr from livestock waste. Reservoirs on the main stem of the Tennessee River and on the Duck and Elk Rivers affect nutrient transport because hydrodynamic conditions in the reservoirs promote assimilation by aquatic plants and deposition of particulate matter. Observed decreases in total nitrite plus nitrate and dissolved-orthophosphorus concentrations in reservoirs or at sites downstream of reservoirs during summer months were probably related to seasonality of plant growth.Nutrient and sediment data used to estimate annual instream loads and yields were compiled from various water-quality monitoring programs and represent the best available data in the LTEN River Basin, but these data have several characteristics that limit accuracy of load estimates. Many of the monitoring programs were not designed with the objective of annual load estimation, and data representing storm transport are, therefore, sparse; sampling and analytical methods varied through time and among the monitoring programs, hampering spatial and temporal comparisons. The load estimates computed from these data are useful for evaluating broad spatial patterns of instream load, and comparisons of instream load to inputs, but may not be sufficiently accurate for local-scale evaluations of water quality. Estimates of the mean annual instream load of total nitrogen entering (Chattanooga, Tenn.) and leaving (Paducah, Ky.) the LTEN River Basin were 29,000 and 60,000 tons per year (tons/yr), respectively. These estimates represent a gain of 31,000 tons/yr, on average, across the area (18,930 mi2) between these inlet and outlet sites. The sum of the mean annual instream load from gaged tributaries to the main stem within the study unit was 14,000 tons/yr; however, this number cannot be directly compared with the gain between the inlet and outlet sites because (1) the gaged area represents only 30 percent of the total area and (2) the period of record at many tributary sites did not correspond with the period of record at the inlet or outlet sites.Estimates of mean annual instream load of to

Citation Information

Publication Year 2000
Title Sources, instream transport, and trends of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in the lower Tennessee River basin, 1980-96
DOI 10.3133/wri994139
Authors Anne B. Hoos, J.A. Robinson, R.A. Aycock, R.R. Knight, M.D. Woodside
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Water-Resources Investigations Report
Series Number 99-4139
Index ID wri994139
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse