Fertilizer, landscape features and climate regulate phosphorus retention and river export in diverse Midwestern watersheds

Evelyn Boardman, Mohammad Danesh-Yazdi, Efi Foufoula-Georgiou, Christine L. Dolph, Jacques C. Finlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

17 Scopus citations


Non-point source pollution of phosphorus (P) is a primary cause of eutrophication of aquatic ecosystems, and poses a persistent management challenge due to the dynamic and poorly understood processes controlling the transport and transformation of P at the watershed scale. We examined phosphorus inputs, retention, and riverine losses in 62 diverse watersheds that included a wide range of land cover and use (minimally disturbed to human dominated) and human P inputs in Minnesota, USA. Fertilizer inputs from row crop cultivation were the dominant source of P to agricultural watersheds. A large majority of P inputs was retained in watershed soils or removed in agricultural products. However, fertilizer input was the most important factor associated with average annual river transport of total, dissolved, and particulate phosphorus (PP). Mean annual runoff increased total and dissolved P yields and decreased P retention. Dissolved P made up a significant portion of annual river loads at sites with high rates of P inputs and river TP export, with the ratio of dissolved to PP export increasing with crop cover and fertilizer inputs. PP export rose with larger extents of eroding bluffs near channels. Bluffs constitute only a small proportion of watershed area, but make a disproportionately high contribution to sediment loads due to their close proximity to river channels that are increasingly affected by human and climate-driven changes to river hydrology. Together, our results suggest that rising discharge and flow variability due to climate change and agricultural intensification coupled with high rates of P inputs will maintain elevated fluvial P export into the future. Without reductions in P inputs and reductions in both soluble P losses and stream bank erosion, reversal of water quality degradation will be difficult to achieve.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)293-309
Number of pages17
Issue number3
StatePublished - Dec 1 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This research was supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1209402 Water, Sustainability and Climate (WSC) Category 2, Collaborative: Climate and human dynamics as amplifiers of natural change: a framework for vulnerability assessment and mitigation planning, and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture under a Clean Water Fund Grant: Measuring and Modeling Watershed Phosphorus Loss and Transport for Improved Management of Agricultural Landscapes.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2019, Springer Nature Switzerland AG.


  • Eutrophication
  • Legacy
  • Nutrient budget
  • Phosphorus
  • Watersheds


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