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A New Understanding of 31 Years of Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Trends

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Chesapeake Bay watershed
Above: Chesapeake Bay watershed, outlined in white. Modified from USGS poster "The Chesapeake Bay Watershed." [larger version]

Patuxent River
Above: Patuxent River near Bowie, Maryland. Photograph courtesy of the USGS. [larger version]

Reducing the delivery of nutrients to the Chesapeake Bay is one of the most important components of restoration efforts to achieve a healthy bay ecosystem. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has developed a new method for tracking the progress toward reducing nitrogen and phosphorus delivery from the watershed to the bay.

"The public and public officials care deeply about progress toward clean water goals for the Chesapeake Bay and other impaired waters of the Nation," said Robert Hirsch, the USGS Research Hydrologist who led the development of this new method. "We developed the new technique and applied it by using more than 13,000 measurements of nitrogen and phosphorus and 100,000 daily streamflow values for nine major rivers flowing into the Chesapeake Bay, in order to provide clearer answers about the changes taking place as part of these long-term restoration efforts."

A description of the new technique and the results of its application to nine Chesapeake Bay tributaries were reported in the October issue of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (v. 46, no. 5, p. 857-880,

"The new USGS method will allow the Chesapeake Bay partners to better assess progress toward reducing the delivery of nutrients and sediment to the bay," said Rich Batiuk, Associate Director for Science, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Chesapeake Bay Program. "This method, based on monitoring data, will improve accountability regarding the nutrient reductions needed to meet our restoration goals for the bay."

When evaluating the quality of the water entering the bay, this new method takes into consideration seasonality, variations in river flow, and long-term trends driven by the wide range of human activities in the watershed, such as wastewater treatment and changing land-management practices.

"When we analyze long-term nutrient trends for the Chesapeake Bay or other major water systems, it's important that we consider flow variations, because water quality can change greatly from year to year as a result of random variations in streamflow," said Hirsch. "This new method enables us to remove this source of variation from the data and get a much clearer picture of the effect of human activities, including nutrient-management actions, on nutrient delivery from these watersheds to the bay."

The analysis reveals both good and bad news about the progress being made regarding the reduction of nutrient inputs over the past 31 years, as well as the past decade. The study looked at dissolved nitrate plus nitrite and total phosphorus. Nitrogen and phosphorus are the primary nutrients responsible for the creation of algal blooms, which decrease light penetration in the bay and result in oxygen depletion when the algae die.

Looking at the four largest rivers in this study, the results show that since the year 2000, nitrogen has been decreasing in the Susquehanna and Potomac Rivers and has remained nearly unchanged in the James and Rappahannock. During the same period, phosphorus changed minimally in the Susquehanna; however, moderate decreases have occurred in the Potomac, and measurable increases have occurred in the James and the Rappahannock.

Methods that do not consider variations in stream flow can paint a much different picture of long-term nutrient trends in the bay. For example, the years 1999-2002 were very dry years throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, and as a consequence, nutrient delivery to the bay was relatively low, and conditions in the bay appeared to be much improved in those years. They were followed by extremely high flow conditions in 2003, and then a series of progressively drier years from 2004 through 2008. The 2003 data show very poor conditions, but the subsequent years' data suggest progressive improvements from one year to the next.

"These apparent changes were largely due to differences in flow," said Hirsch. "This new method helps us to see past these random year-to-year changes and get at the underlying long-term changes taking place."

Additional key findings include the following:

  • Substantial improvement in the Patuxent River basin, between Baltimore, Maryland, and Washington, D.C.: Total phosphorus from this watershed declined by 75 percent from 1978 through 2000 and was essentially unchanged from 2000 through 2008. Nitrogen decreased by about 26 percent from 1978 through 2000 and an additional 15 percent from 2000 to 2008. These results are likely due to large investments in advanced water-treatment plants.

  • Increase in nitrogen in the Choptank watershed on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay: Nitrogen from the Choptank watershed increased 36 percent from 1978 to 2000 and a total of 53 percent for the whole period from 1978 to 2008. The new method shows that much of this increase took place on those days when flow was made up almost entirely of groundwater flowing into the river, an important consideration for watershed managers.

  • Over the whole 31-year period, most of the changes in rivers across the Chesapeake Bay watershed are relatively gradual: Only two of the nine watersheds had average rates of change for total phosphorus flux that were more than 2 percent per year. None of the nine watersheds had changes in nitrogen of greater than 2 percent per year.

The USGS, in partnership with the EPA Chesapeake Bay Program and agencies in six states throughout the Chesapeake Bay watershed, collects data from the Chesapeake Bay Program Nontidal Water-Quality Monitoring Network. The USGS provides critical science to the Chesapeake Bay Program partners and is expanding its efforts to meet the new commitments in the President's Executive Order to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Visit the Web site "USGS Chesapeake Bay Activities" for more information.

The data used in the recent study are available from the USGS National Water Information System. The nine rivers that were studied are the Susquehanna, Potomac, James, Rappahannock, Appomattox, Pamunkey, Mattaponi, Patuxent, and Choptank. The USGS is engaged in expanding the application of this method to other data sets related to the Chesapeake Bay and other parts of the Nation where nutrients are an important issue.

For information on this new method and the results of this specific study, contact Robert Hirsch at or (703) 648-5888.

For information about the involvement of the USGS in Chesapeake Bay studies, contact Scott Phillips at or (443) 498-5552.

Related Web Sites
USGS Chesapeake Bay Activities
USGS Water Data for the Nation
Weighted Regressions on Time, Discharge, and Season (WRTDS), with an Application to Chesapeake Bay River Inputs
Journal of the American Water Resources Association

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cover story:
Subsea Permafrost and Gas Hydrates Offshore of Alaska

Coral Calcification Rates

Coral Paparazzi

ResearchWhale Falls

Chesapeake Bay Nutrient Trends

Manatee Subspecies Genetically Confirmed

Outreach Earth-Science Multimedia

Woods Hole Partnership Education Program

Meetings International Workshop on Cold-Water Corals

Gordon Research Conference on Natural Gas Hydrates

Awards Jeff Williams Receives NPS Director's Career Achievement Award

Alan Cooper Awarded SCAR Medal for International Scientific Coordination

Publications Oct. / Nov. 2010 Publications U. S. Department of the Interior | U.S. Geological Survey
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