Precipitation Dominates Interannual Variability of Riverine Nitrogen Loading across the Continental United States

2016-10-22T00:00:00Z (GMT) by Eva Sinha Anna M. Michalak
Excessive nitrogen loading to waterways leads to increased eutrophication and associated water quality impacts. An understanding of the regional and interannual variability in nitrogen loading and associated drivers is necessary for the design of effective management strategies. Here we develop a parsimonious empirical model based on net anthropogenic nitrogen input, precipitation, and land use that explains 68% of the observed variability in annual total nitrogen flux (QTN) (76% of ln­(QTN)) across 242 catchment years. We use this model to present the first spatially and temporally resolved estimates of QTN for all eight-digit hydrologic unit (HUC8) watersheds within the continental United States (CONUS), focusing on the period 1987–2007. Results reveal high spatial and temporal variability in loading, with spatial variability primarily driven by nitrogen inputs, but with interannual variability and the occurrence of extremes dominated by precipitation across over three-quarters of the CONUS. High interannual variability and its correlation with precipitation persist at large aggregated scales. These findings point to a fundamental challenge in managing regions with high nutrient loading, because these regions also exhibit the strongest interannual variability and because the impact of changes in management practices will be modulated by meteorological variability and climatic trends.