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Developing Nutrient Criteria for Streams: An Evaluation of the Frequency Distribution Method1


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    Paper No. J05187 of the Journal of the American Water Resources Association (JAWRA).



Abstract:  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends two statistical methods to States and Tribes for developing nutrient criteria. One establishes a criterion as the 75th percentile of a reference-population frequency distribution, the other uses the 25th percentile of a general-population distribution; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests either method results in similar criteria. To evaluate each method, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (MT DEQ) assembled data from STORET and other sources to create a nutrient general population. MT DEQ’s reference-stream project provided reference population data. Data were partitioned by ecoregions, and by seasons (winter, runoff, and growing) defined for the project. For each ecoregion and season, nutrient concentrations at the 75th percentile of the reference population were matched to their corresponding concentrations in the general population. Additionally, nutrient concentrations from five regional scientific studies were matched to their corresponding reference population concentrations; each study linked nutrients to impacts on water uses. Reference-to-general population matches were highly variable between ecoregions, as nutrients at the 75th percentile of reference corresponded to percentiles ranging from the 4th to the 97th of the general population. In contrast, case studies-to-reference matches were more consistent, matching on average to the 86th percentile of reference, with a coefficient of variation of 13%.