Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Water-quality assessment of the eastern Iowa basins– Nitrogen, phosphorus, suspended sediment, and organic carbon in surface water, 1996–98

September 1, 2002

Twelve sites on streams and rivers in the Eastern Iowa Basins study unit were sampled monthly and during selected storm events from March 1996 through September 1998 to assess the occurrence, distribution, and transport of nitrogen, phosphorus, suspended sediment, and organic carbon as part of the U.S. Geological Survey’s National Water-Quality Assessment Program. One site was dropped from monthly sampling after 1996. Dissolved nitrogen and phosphorus were detected in every water sample collected. Nitrate accounted for 92 percent of the total dissolved nitrogen. About 22 percent of the samples had nitrate concentrations that exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum contaminant level of 10 milligrams per liter as nitrogen for drinking-water regulations. The median concentration of total dissolved nitrogen for surface water in the study unit was 7.2 milligrams per liter. The median total phosphorus concentration for the study unit was 0.22 milligram per liter. About 75 percent of the total phosphorus concentrations exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommended total phosphorus concentration of 0.10 milligram per liter or less to minimize algal growth. Median suspended sediment and dissolved organic-carbon concentrations for the study unit were 82 and 3.5 milligrams per liter, respectively.

Median concentrations of nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended sediment varied annually and seasonally. Nitrogen, phosphorus, and suspended-sediment concentrations increased each year of the study due to increased precipitation and runoff. Median concentrations of dissolved organic carbon were constant from 1996 to 1998. Nitrogen concentrations were typically higher in the spring after fertilizer application and runoff. During winter, nitrogen concentrations typically increased when there was little in-stream processing by biota. Nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations decreased in late summer when there was less runoff and in-stream processing of nitrogen and phosphorus was high. Dissolved organic carbon was highest in February and March when decaying vegetation and manure were transported during snowmelt. Suspendedsediment concentrations were highest in early summer (May–June) during runoff and lowest in January when there was ice cover with very little overland flow contributing to rivers and streams. Based on historical and study-unit data, eastern Iowa streams and rivers are impacted by both nonpoint and point-source pollution.

Indicator sites that have homogeneous land use, and geology had samples with significantly higher concentrations of total dissolved nitrogen (median, 8.2 milligrams per liter) than did samples from integrator sites (median, 6.2 milligrams per liter) that were more heterogeneous in land use and geology. Samples from integrator sites typically had significantly higher total phosphorus and suspended-sediment concentrations than did samples from indicator sites. Typically, there was very little difference in median dissolved organic-carbon concentrations in samples from indicator and integrator sites.

Concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorus varied across the study unit due to land use and physiography. Basins that are located in areas with a higher percentage of row-crop agriculture typically had samples with higher nitrogen concentrations. Basins that drain the Southern Iowa Drift Plain and the Des Moines Lobe typically had samples with higher total phosphorus and suspended-sediment concentrations.

Total nitrogen loads increased each year from 1996 through 1998 in conjunction with increased concentrations and runoff. Total phosphorus loads in the Skunk River Basin decreased in 1997 due to less runoff and decreased sediment transport, but increased in 1998 due to higher runoff and increased sediment transport. Total nitrogen and total phosphorus loads varied seasonally. The highest loads typically occurred in early spring and summer after fertilizer application and runoff. Loads were lowest in January and September when there was typically very little runoff to transport nitrogen and phosphorus in the soil to the rivers and streams.

Total nitrogen loads contributed to the Mississippi River from the Eastern Iowa Basins during 1996, 1997, and 1998 were 97,600, 120,000, and 234,000 metric tons, respectively. Total phosphorus loads contributed to the Mississippi River from the Eastern Iowa Basins during 1996, 1997, and 1998 were 6,860, 4,550, and 8,830 metric tons, respectively. Suspendedsediment loads contributed to the Mississippi River from the Eastern Iowa Basins during 1996, 1997, and 1998 were 7,480,000, 4,450,000, and 8,690,000 metric tons, respectively. The highest total nitrogen and total phosphorus yields typically occurred in samples from indicator sites. Sampling sites located in drainage basins with higher row-crop percentage typically had higher nitrogen and phosphorus yields. Sites that were located in the Des Moines Lobe and the Southern Iowa Drift Plain typically had higher phosphorus yields, probably due to physiographic features (for example, erodible soils, steeper slopes).

Synoptic samples collected during low and high base flow had nitrogen, phosphorus, and organic-carbon concentrations that varied spatially and seasonally. Comparisons of water-quality data from six basic-fixed sampling sites and 19 other synoptic sites suggest that the water-quality data from basic-fixed sampling sites were representative of the entire study unit during periods of low and high base flow when most streamflow originates from ground water.