Water Resources Research

Regional interpretation of water-quality monitoring data


  • Richard A. Smith,

  • Gregory E. Schwarz,

  • Richard B. Alexander


We describe a method for using spatially referenced regressions of contaminant transport on watershed attributes (SPARROW) in regional water-quality assessment. The method is designed to reduce the problems of data interpretation caused by sparse sampling, network bias, and basin heterogeneity. The regression equation relates measured transport rates in streams to spatially referenced descriptors of pollution sources and land-surface and stream-channel characteristics. Regression models of total phosphorus (TP) and total nitrogen (TN) transport are constructed for a region defined as the nontidal conterminous United States. Observed TN and TP transport rates are derived from water-quality records for 414 stations in the National Stream Quality Accounting Network. Nutrient sources identified in the equations include point sources, applied fertilizer, livestock waste, nonagricultural land, and atmospheric deposition (TN only). Surface characteristics found to be significant predictors of land-water delivery include soil permeability, stream density, and temperature (TN only). Estimated instream decay coefficients for the two contaminants decrease monotonically with increasing stream size. TP transport is found to be significantly reduced by reservoir retention. Spatial referencing of basin attributes in relation to the stream channel network greatly increases their statistical significance and model accuracy. The method is used to estimate the proportion of watersheds in the conterminous United States (i.e., hydrologic cataloging units) with outflow TP concentrations less than the criterion of 0.1 mg/L, and to classify cataloging units according to local TN yield (kg/km2/yr).