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Stormwater quantity and quality in selected urban watersheds in Hampton Roads, Virginia, 2016–2020

November 23, 2022

Urbanization can substantially alter sediment and nutrient loadings to streams. Although a growing body of literature has documented these processes, conditions may vary widely by region and physiographic province (PP). Substantial investments are made by localities to meet federal, state, and local water-quality goals and locally relevant monitoring data are needed to appropriately set standards and track progress. In 2016, a long-term stormwater monitoring program was initiated to characterize water-quality and streamflow conditions and compute average annual nutrient- and sediment-loading rates across the three dominant land-use types—commercial (COM), high-density residential, and single-family residential (SFR)—in the Hampton Roads metropolitan region within the Coastal Plain PP in southeastern Virginia. This report summarizes the first five years of data collection to (1) assess patterns in streamflow and water chemistry across the three major land-use types in the region; (2) compute annual sediment and nutrient loads; and (3) compare annual loading rates to those in other urbanized regions.

Patterns in watershed hydrology characteristics and conditions were similar to those observed in other urban monitoring studies. Base-flow indices were lower and stream flashiness indices were higher in the study watersheds compared to those in less developed reference watersheds. These patterns reflect a decrease in infiltration and consequent increase in storm runoff as a result of urbanization. Stream flashiness was strongly positively related to degree of impervious land cover and negatively to watershed area. Hydrologic metrics varied across the land-use gradient, reflecting greater and more rapid runoff in the COM watersheds than in SFR watersheds. Event-based analyses conducted exclusively on periods of runoff highlight longer duration events, longer time-to-peak streamflow, and a longer lag between peak precipitation and peak streamflow in SFR watersheds, and higher stormflow yields, runoff ratios, and peak flows in COM watersheds. Event-based metrics varied seasonally because of regional meteorological patterns.

Concentrations of total suspended solids (TSS) and total phosphorus (TP) were positively correlated to streamflow, whereas concentrations of total nitrogen (TN) varied little across the hydrologic regime. Phosphorus composition varied spatially and seasonally—the proportion of orthophosphate (PO43-) was highest in samples collected from stations draining residential land-use types and was elevated in summer and fall. Nitrogen composition varied with hydrologic condition: nitrate plus nitrite (NO3-) dominance during base flow shifted to total organic nitrogen (TON) dominance during periods of runoff. For all three major constituents (TSS, TP, and TN), concentrations were highest in SFR watersheds, whereas yields were greatest in COM watersheds. This seeming contradiction in concentration and yield across land-use types occurred because of spatial differences in streamflow yield.

The network average TSS yield in Hampton Roads was lower than that in comparable networks in Fairfax County, Virginia, and Gwinnett County, Georgia, a difference that may reflect dissimilarities in the topographic and soil characteristics of the Coastal Plain versus those in Piedmont PPs, as well as differences in engineered concrete stormwater conveyances versus earthen streams. The average annual TP yield in Hampton Roads was higher than averages reported in comparison studies and was primarily driven by elevated PO43-. Elevated PO43- yields may be related to unique soil and geological features of the Coastal Plain PP that limit phosphorus retention. Total nitrogen yields in the Hampton Roads and Fairfax County networks were similar; however, composition did vary, with greater total organic nitrogen yields in Hampton Roads and greater NO3- yields in Fairfax County.

Cross-correlation analyses and mass-volume curves were used to assess the timing of sediment and nutrient loadings. The majority of TSS and TP was typically transported during the initial phase of a storm-runoff event, a phenomenon commonly termed the “first flush.” Although TN concentrations typically peaked within an hour of peak streamflow, reflecting the particulate dominance of TN during stormflows, and loadings were greater during the early phase of most storm events, the stricter first-flush criterion was rarely met. This suggests that the most abundant sources of TN in these watersheds are not as directly connected to the stormwater-conveyance system as are TSS and TP.

Publication Year 2022
Title Stormwater quantity and quality in selected urban watersheds in Hampton Roads, Virginia, 2016–2020
DOI 10.3133/sir20225111
Authors Aaron J. Porter
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2022-5111
Index ID sir20225111
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Virginia and West Virginia Water Science Center