Agriculture Best Management Practices: Quantification of In-Stream Phosphorus and Sediment Storage and Transport - Linking Land Use and Landscape Best Management Practices with Downstream Transport in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Priority Watersheds

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As part of a coordinated effort with University of Minnesota (UMN) and US Forest Service (USFS), USGS will conduct sediment and phosphorus source tracking in two agricultural watersheds -- specifically corn and soybean production -- of Black Creek and Plum Creek, tributaries to the Maumee and Fox Rivers, respectively.

Passive sediment sampler set up in Black Creek

A sediment sampler set up in Black Creek to help with quantification of in-stream phosphorus. 

(Public domain.)

These tracking studies will use a combination of tracers including metals and radiometric isotopes (7Be) for tracking sediment and P transport from headwaters to mainstems at multiple spatial and temporal resolutions.  This study will provide a proportional analysis of sediment contributed from each upland source type (cropland with fertilizer or manure inputs, pasture, roads, forested, and from low and middle streambanks). Suspended-sediment samples that can be tied to nutrient and sediment loads being calculated for the larger basins as part of independently funded GLRI work will be used to conduct the proportional analysis.  For individual high-flow events sampled in coordination with 7Be analysis at edge of field site, this will also provide an understanding of how much active erosion occurs on the fields and how that relates to what is collected in the passive samplers at Black Creek, Indiana edge-of-field site.  The perimeter of this basin is forested and is bordered by a road to the east, so it is effectively a “mixed land use” site.

Upland source samples were collected in summer 2017.  One year of monthly, suspended sediment samples to be attributed among sources were collected at 3 stream sites and 1 edge of field site during water year 2018. Additional years of suspended sediment were collected bimonthly or by storm event at edge-of-field. In addition, two seasonal 7Be events were collected at edge-of-field site during baseline period of water year 2018.  Three seasonal 7Be events were collected at edge-of-field site during baseline period and five paired surface runoff and tile-drain runoff samples were collected for 7Be analysis during water year 2019. 

Three general steps were involved in sediment fingerprinting (Haddadchi et al., 2013): 1) collect sediment samples from various source materials that are expected to contribute to the sediment load in the stream and through geochemical analysis, identify analytes that may be tracers of the sediment source; 2) collect in situ fluvial-target samples that represent the mixtures of sediment from the various sources; and 3) apply statistical mixing models to determine the relative contribution of the various sources identified to the fluvial-target samples. (learn more)

Tile drains continue to be a mechanism that needs to be better understood in terms of how water is moving into and through the system.  This is being addressed with a combination of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) remote sensing and 7Be analyses to complement ongoing water quality sampling. Discharge and water quality of both surface and tile drainage reflect differences in density and design of network; differentiating the type of tile-drain system is key to best managing field contributions to streams.


Williamson, T.N., Fitzpatrick, F.A., Karwan, D.L., Kolka, R.K., Dobrowolski, E., Blount, J., and Pawlowski, E.D. Tracking phosphorus and sediment sources and transport from fields and channels in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative priority watersheds. 2019. SEDHYD - Conference Paper, 13p.


  • Better characterizing how sediment and phosphorus are moving into and through sub-surface tile-drain systems.
  • Differentiating the seasonal contributions of cropland and pasture land to sediment and nutrients.
  • Quantifying the effect of cover crops during atypical-weather years.


  • Indiana Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District continues to help us sample for all aspects of this work.


Haddadchi, A., D.S. Ryder, O. Evrard and J. Olley. 2013. Sediment fingerprinting in fluvial systems: review of tracers, sediment sources and mixing models. International Journal of Sediment Research 28: 560-578. doi: