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Keywords:

  • statistical methods;
  • ranking;
  • Mississippi;
  • load;
  • yield;
  • nutrients;
  • Gulf of Mexico, hypoxia

Abstract:  Excessive loads of nutrients transported by tributary rivers have been linked to hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. Management efforts to reduce the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico and improve the water quality of rivers and streams could benefit from targeting nutrient reductions toward watersheds with the highest nutrient yields delivered to sensitive downstream waters. One challenge is that most conventional watershed modeling approaches (e.g., mechanistic models) used in these management decisions do not consider uncertainties in the predictions of nutrient yields and their downstream delivery. The increasing use of parameter estimation procedures to statistically estimate model coefficients, however, allows uncertainties in these predictions to be reliably estimated. Here, we use a robust bootstrapping procedure applied to the results of a previous application of the hybrid statistical/mechanistic watershed model SPARROW (Spatially Referenced Regression On Watershed attributes) to develop a statistically reliable method for identifying “high priority” areas for management, based on a probabilistic ranking of delivered nutrient yields from watersheds throughout a basin. The method is designed to be used by managers to prioritize watersheds where additional stream monitoring and evaluations of nutrient-reduction strategies could be undertaken. Our ranking procedure incorporates information on the confidence intervals of model predictions and the corresponding watershed rankings of the delivered nutrient yields. From this quantified uncertainty, we estimate the probability that individual watersheds are among a collection of watersheds that have the highest delivered nutrient yields. We illustrate the application of the procedure to 818 eight-digit Hydrologic Unit Code watersheds in the Mississippi/Atchafalaya River basin by identifying 150 watersheds having the highest delivered nutrient yields to the Gulf of Mexico. Highest delivered yields were from watersheds in the Central Mississippi, Ohio, and Lower Mississippi River basins. With 90% confidence, only a few watersheds can be reliably placed into the highest 150 category; however, many more watersheds can be removed from consideration as not belonging to the highest 150 category. Results from this ranking procedure provide robust information on watershed nutrient yields that can benefit management efforts to reduce nutrient loadings to downstream coastal waters, such as the Gulf of Mexico, or to local receiving streams and reservoirs.