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Spatially referenced models of streamflow and nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended-sediment loads in the southeastern United States

February 4, 2020

Spatially Referenced Regression On Watershed attributes (SPARROW) models were applied to describe and estimate mean-annual streamflow and transport of total nitrogen (TN), total phosphorus (TP), and suspended sediment (SS) in streams and delivered to coastal waters of the southeastern United States on the basis of inputs and management practices centered near 2012, the base year of the model. Previously published TN and TP models for 2002 served as a starting point and reference for comparison. The datasets developed for the 2012 models not only represent updates of previous conditions but also incorporate new approaches for characterizing sources and transport processes that were not available for previous models.

Variability in streamflow across the southeastern United States was explained as a function of precipitation adjusted for evapotranspiration, spring discharge, and municipal and domestic wastewater discharges to streams. Results from the streamflow model were used as input to the water-quality SPARROW models, and areas with large streamflow prediction errors—urban areas and karst areas—were used to provide guidance on where additional data are needed to improve routing of flow.

Variability in TN transport in Southeast streams was explained by the following five sources in order of decreasing mass contribution to streams: atmospheric deposition, agricultural fertilizer, municipal wastewater, manure from livestock, and urban land. Variable rates of TN delivery from source to stream were attributed to variation among catchments in climate, soil texture, and vegetative cover, including the extent of cover crops in the watershed. Variability in TP transport in Southeast streams was explained by the following six sources in order of decreasing mass contribution to streams: parent-rock minerals, urban land, manure from livestock, municipal wastewater, agricultural fertilizer, and phosphate mining. Varying rates of TP delivery were attributed to variation in climate, soil erodibility, depth to water table, and the extent of conservation tillage practices in the watershed.

Variability in SS transport in Southeast streams was explained by variable sediment export rates for different combinations of land cover and geologic setting (for upland sources of sediment) and by gains in stream power caused by longitudinal changes in channel hydraulics (for channel sources of sediment). Sediment yields for the transitional land cover (shrub, scrub, herbaceous, and barren) varied widely depending on geologic setting and on agricultural land cover. Varying rates of SS delivery, like those for TP, were attributed to variation in climate, soil erodibility, and the extent of conservation tillage practices in the watershed, as well as to areal extent of canopy land cover in the 100-meter buffer along the channel. Relatively large uncertainty, compared to the other three models, for almost all the SS source coefficients indicates the need for caution when interpreting the results from the sediment model.

TN, TP, and SS inputs to streams from sources were balanced in the models with losses from physical processes in streams and reservoirs and with water withdrawals. The losses in streams and reservoirs along with withdrawals removed 35, 44, and 65 percent of the TN, TP, and SS load, respectively, that entered streams before reaching coastal waters.