A synoptic survey of nitrogen and phosphorus in tributary streams and great rivers of the Upper Mississippi, Missouri, and Ohio River basins

Brian H. Hill, David W. Bolgrien, Alan T. Herlihy, Terri M. Jicha, Ted R. Angradi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

16 Scopus citations


We combined stream chemistry and hydrology data from surveys of 436 tributary stream sites and 447 great river sites in the Upper Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River basins to provide a regional snapshot of baseflow total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) concentrations, and to investigate the relationships between land use and stream chemistry. Catchments in the Upper Mississippi River basin had more land in agricultural uses (51%) than the Missouri or Ohio River basin catchments (25% and 29%, respectively). The difference in agriculture is reflected in the TN concentrations in tributary streams and the great rivers: 5,431 and 2,112 μg L-1 for the Upper Mississippi, 1,751 and 978 μg L-1 for the Missouri, and 1,074 and 1,152 μg L-1 for the Ohio River basins. This agricultural effect was not as evident for tributary stream or great river TP concentrations: 165 and 181 μg L-1 in the Upper Mississippi, 177 and 171 μg L -1 in the Missouri, and 67 and 53 μg L-1 in the Ohio River basins. We set reference thresholds based on the 75th percentile TN and TP concentrations at our least disturbed sites. The TN threshold was exceeded for 50-63% of the tributary stream and 16-55% of great river lengths, with the greatest proportion in the Upper Mississippi River basin. The TP threshold was exceeded in 32-48% of tributary stream and 12-41% of great river lengths. Tributary stream N/P ranged from 67:1 (Ohio) to 210:1 (Upper Mississippi); river N/P ranged from 20:1 (Missouri) to 60:1 (Ohio). N/P indicated that potential N-limitation occurred in 10-21% of total tributary stream length and in 0-46% of great river length; potential P-limitation ranged from 60-83% of cumulative tributary stream length and from 21-98% of cumulative great river length. Total N flux (concentration × discharge) was highest in the Upper Mississippi River basin; TP flux was lowest in the Ohio River basin. River TN yields and TP yields for both tributary streams and great rivers, was not significantly different between the sub-basins. Our study empirically links catchment land use and stream chemistry, and demonstrates using monitoring data for estimating nutrient yields at a large regional scale.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)605-619
Number of pages15
JournalWater, Air, and Soil Pollution
Issue number1-4
StatePublished - Mar 2011
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Copyright 2011 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


  • Missouri
  • Nitrogen
  • Nutrient flux
  • Nutrient yield
  • Ohio River basins
  • Phosphorus
  • Snapshot methodology
  • Spatial analysis
  • Upper Mississippi


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