US Long-Term Ecological Research Network
Phosphorus loads to surface waters: a simple model to account for spatial pattern of land use
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Modeling nonpoint-source phosphorus (P) loading from land to surface waters can be both complex and data intensive. Our goal was to develop a simple model that would account for spatial pattern in topography and land use using geographic information system (GIS) databases. We estimated areas of the watershed that strongly contributed to P loading by approximating overland flow, and modeled annual P loading by fitting three parameters to data obtained by stream monitoring. We calibrated the model using P loading data from two years of contrasting annual precipitation for Lake Mendota, a Wisconsin eutrophic lake in a watershed dominated by agriculture and urban lands. Land-use scenarios were developed to estimate annual P loading from pre-settlement and future land uses. As much as half of the Lake Mendota watershed did not contribute significantly to annual P loading. The greatest contribution to loading came from a heterogeneous riparian corridor that varied in width from 0.1 km to ≈ 6 km depending on topography and runoff conditions. We estimate that loading from pre-settlement land use was one-sixth of the loading from present land use. A future scenario, representing an 80\% increase in existing urban land (from 9 to 16\% of total watershed area, which would be reached in 30 yr with current land-use trends), showed only modest increases in annual P loading but possible significant effects on water quality. If the watershed were to become entirely urbanized, P loading to the lake would double and potential effects on water quality would be severe. Changes in P loading were strongest with conversions of undisturbed vegetated lands, especially riparian areas, to either urban or agricultural uses. Variability in total annual rainfall leads to variability in the riparian area that affects P loading, with implications for policies intended to control nonpoint nutrient inputs.