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Water-quality trends for selected sites and constituents in the international Red River of the North Basin, Minnesota and North Dakota, United States, and Manitoba, Canada, 1970–2017

August 10, 2020

A comprehensive study to evaluate water-quality trends, while considering natural hydroclimatic variability, in the Red River of the North Basin and assess water-quality conditions for the Red River of the North crossing the international boundary near Emerson, Manitoba, Canada (the binational site), was completed by the U.S. Geological Survey in cooperation with the International Joint Commission, North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and in collaboration with Manitoba Sustainable Development and Environment and Climate Change Canada. The international Red River of the North Basin encompasses 3 U.S. States (South Dakota, North Dakota, and Minnesota) and 1 Canadian Province (Manitoba). Water quality in the Red River of the North Basin is of concern for both Federal governments and State and Provincial governments. Water-quality objectives have been previously established for selected dissolved ions and recently (2019) proposed for selected nutrients for the binational site.

In the current (2020) study, water-quality data from State, Provincial, and Federal agencies in the United States and Canada for sites in the Red River of the North Basin from 1970 to 2017 were compiled and used for trend analysis. Trend analysis using a water-quality dataset from multiple agencies that collect water-quality data for various objectives presented multiple challenges. The trend-analysis approach was able to accommodate differences in water-quality data caused by field-collection and laboratory-analytical method differences, disparities in sampling frequencies, and spatial and temporal gaps in data. Most of these challenges were overcome by the statistical tool, R–QWTREND, which identifies trends in concentration unrelated to variability in streamflow.

The integrated basin approach used in the current study, combined with comparing current data trends with historical trends, provided valuable insights into understanding how water quality is changing spatially (34 sites analyzed for a recent period, 2000–15) and temporally (5 sites analyzed for a 45-year historical period, 1970–2015) within the Red River of the North Basin. One of the most consistent spatial and temporal changes observed in the current study was increasing concentrations of sulfate among tributary and main-stem sites since 2000. For some sites, increases were detected starting as early as 1985. Total dissolved solids and chloride concentrations had spatial and temporal patterns like sulfate. Although R–QWTREND removes the variability in constituent concentration caused by natural streamflow variability, all variability in sulfate caused by hydroclimatic variability may not be captured because of changes in hydrologic pathways and changes in the contributions of sulfate from various natural sources.

Nutrient concentrations demonstrated less consistent spatial and temporal changes than sulfate, and changes in nutrient concentrations were assumed to be more closely tied to human-induced rather than natural changes. Nitrate-plus-nitrite concentrations were mostly increasing in the upper Red River of the North subbasin, and for nitrate plus nitrite and total nitrogen, the Sheyenne River subbasin had consistent decreasing concentrations. Since 2000, total phosphorus has decreased in the upper Red River of the North subbasin, but total phosphorus concentration has increased for sites in the lower Red River of the North subbasin, and for some main-stem sites, concentrations have been increasing since 1985. Unlike sulfate, the pattern in historical trends for total phosphorus for the main-stem sites differed from tributary sites, indicating that human-induced changes affected tributaries and main-stem sites differently.

The more detailed evaluation of flow-averaged water-quality conditions for the binational site provided an understanding of how loads have changed over time and what proportion of the year and season concentrations are expected to exceed water-quality objectives. In a basin with highly variable streamflow like the Red River of the North, the trend in flow-averaged load (assuming streamflow conditions are the same year after year) provided a robust measure of change over time. Increasing concentrations of sulfate, chloride, total dissolved solids, and total phosphorus since 1985 for the binational site resulted in longer periods of exceedance of water-quality objectives per year occurring over time. For total nitrogen, decreasing concentrations resulted in shorter periods of exceedance per year during 1980 to 2015, but concentrations were still expected to exceed the water-quality objective about half the year. Periods of when exceedances were likely to occur during the year were affected by the source and transport mechanisms of the constituent.

Trend results from this effort identified how water quality has changed across the basin, and further investigation would help to identify causes for the trends observed here. Information from the current study provides a basis for future trend attribution studies, evaluation of water-quality objectives, and development of comprehensive strategies for reducing nutrients to desired targets and establishes a baseline for tracking future progress in the Red River of the North Basin.

Publication Year 2020
Title Water-quality trends for selected sites and constituents in the international Red River of the North Basin, Minnesota and North Dakota, United States, and Manitoba, Canada, 1970–2017
DOI 10.3133/sir20205079
Authors Rochelle A. Nustad, Aldo V. Vecchia
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2020-5079
Index ID sir20205079
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Dakota Water Science Center