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Journal of Environmental Quality Abstract - Surface Water Quality

Increased Soluble Phosphorus Loads to Lake Erie: Unintended Consequences of Conservation Practices?


This article in JEQ

  1. Vol. 46 No. 1, p. 123-132
    unlockOPEN ACCESS
    Received: July 03, 2016
    Accepted: Nov 23, 2016
    Published: January 12, 2017

    * Corresponding author(s): hpj@ceh.ac.uk
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  1. Helen P. Jarvie *a,
  2. Laura T. Johnsonb,
  3. Andrew N. Sharpleyc,
  4. Douglas R. Smithd,
  5. David B. Bakerb,
  6. Tom W. Bruulsemae and
  7. Remegio Confesorb
  1. a Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Wallingford, OX10 8BB, UK
    b National Center for Water Quality Research, Heidelberg Univ., Tiffin, OH 44883
    c Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences, Univ. of Arkansas, AR 72701
    d Grassland, Soil and Water Research Laboratory, USDA–ARS, Temple, TX 76502
    e International Plant Nutrition Institute, Guelph, ON, NG1 1L8, Canada
Core Ideas:
  • A step-change increase in river SRP loads to Lake Erie occurred in the early 2000s.
  • ∼35% of the increased SRP loads was attributed to higher runoff volumes.
  • ∼65% was from increased SRP delivery (source availability and transport efficiency).
  • Watershed P stores declined, but conservation tillage and tile drainage increased.
  • Well-intentioned conservation measures may have contributed to increased SRP loads.


Cumulative daily load time series show that the early 2000s marked a step-change increase in riverine soluble reactive phosphorus (SRP) loads entering the Western Lake Erie Basin from three major tributaries: the Maumee, Sandusky, and Raisin Rivers. These elevated SRP loads have been sustained over the last 12 yr. Empirical regression models were used to estimate the contributions from (i) increased runoff from changing weather and precipitation patterns and (ii) increased SRP delivery (the combined effects of increased source availability and/or increased transport efficiency of labile phosphorus [P] fractions). Approximately 65% of the SRP load increase after 2002 was attributable to increased SRP delivery, with higher runoff volumes accounting for the remaining 35%. Increased SRP delivery occurred concomitantly with declining watershed P budgets. However, within these watersheds, there have been long-term, largescale changes in land management: reduced tillage to minimize erosion and particulate P loss, and increased tile drainage to improve field operations and profitability. These practices can inadvertently increase labile P fractions at the soil surface and transmission of soluble P via subsurface drainage. Our findings suggest that changes in agricultural practices, including some conservation practices designed to reduce erosion and particulate P transport, may have had unintended, cumulative, and converging impacts contributing to the increased SRP loads, reaching a critical threshold around 2002.

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