Toward disentangling the effect of hydrologic and nitrogen source changes from 1992 to 2001 on incremental nitrogen yield in the contiguous United States



[1] The goal of this research was to quantify the relative impact of hydrologic and nitrogen source changes on incremental nitrogen yield in the contiguous United States. Using nitrogen source estimates from various federal data bases, remotely sensed land use data from the National Land Cover Data program, and observed instream loadings from the United States Geological Survey National Stream Quality Accounting Network program, we calibrated and applied the spatially referenced regression model SPARROW to estimate incremental nitrogen yield for the contiguous United States. We ran different model scenarios to separate the effects of changes in source contributions from hydrologic changes for the years 1992 and 2001, assuming that only state conditions changed and that model coefficients describing the stream water-quality response to changes in state conditions remained constant between 1992 and 2001. Model results show a decrease of 8.2% in the median incremental nitrogen yield over the period of analysis with the vast majority of this decrease due to changes in hydrologic conditions rather than decreases in nitrogen sources. For example, when we changed the 1992 version of the model to have nitrogen source data from 2001, the model results showed only a small increase in median incremental nitrogen yield (0.12%). However, when we changed the 1992 version of the model to have hydrologic conditions from 2001, model results showed a decrease of approximately 8.7% in median incremental nitrogen yield. We did, however, find notable differences in incremental yield estimates for different sources of nitrogen after controlling for hydrologic changes, particularly for population related sources. For example, the median incremental yield for population related sources increased by 8.4% after controlling for hydrologic changes. This is in contrast to a 2.8% decrease in population related sources when hydrologic changes are included in the analysis. Likewise we found that median incremental yield from urban watersheds increased by 6.8% after controlling for hydrologic changes—in contrast to the median incremental nitrogen yield from cropland watersheds, which decreased by 2.1% over the same time period. These results suggest that, after accounting for hydrologic changes, population related sources became a more significant contributor of nitrogen yield to streams in the contiguous United States over the period of analysis. However, this study was not able to account for the influence of human management practices such as improvements in wastewater treatment plants or Best Management Practices that likely improved water quality, due to a lack of data for quantifying the impact of these practices for the study area.