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Urban Impacts on Phosphorus in Streams

Although phosphorus is an essential nutrient for all life forms, essential amounts of the chemical element can cause water quality problems in rivers, lakes, and coastal zones.

High concentrations of phosphorus in aquatic ecosystems are often associated with human activities in the surrounding area, such as agriculture and urban development. However, relationships between specific human sources of phosphorus and phosphorus concentrations in aquatic ecosystems are yet to be understood. Establishing these relationships could allow for the development, implementation, and evaluation of management strategies to reduce nutrient pollution.

Scientists from Washington State University-Vancouver and the University of California-Davis have investigated the link between human sources of phosphorus and phosphorus concentrations in rivers draining into California’s Central Valley. Agricultural activity and human population density data was used to estimate the annual input of phosphorus from human sources to watersheds in the Central Valley for the early 2000s. The scientists then compared these estimates with data on phosphorus concentrations in rivers draining the watersheds from 2000 to 2003. Results from the study were published in the August issue of the Journal of Environmental Quality. This study was funded by California SeaGrant, the US Geological Survey, and NASA.

The research revealed that the majority of phosphorus input from human sources was located in a very small area in most of the river basins studied. Additionally, estimates of phosphorus inputs from fertilizer and livestock manure, rather than phosphorus input from human sewage, better predicted dissolved forms of phosphorus in rivers than generic data on agricultural and urban land use types in watersheds. The form of phosphorus in rivers is important, as different forms can have different environmental impacts.

“Establishing relationships between human sources of nutrients and nutrient concentrations in rivers is of interest because they may help to develop management strategies for reducing nutrient runoff to the environment,” said Dan Sobota, who conducted the study along with John Harrison and Randy Dahlgren.

Research is ongoing at Washington State University-Vancouver and the University of California to find the link between human sources of nutrients in watersheds and aquatic nutrient levels. Further research is needed to examine how relationships between human sources of nutrients and aquatic nutrient concentrations change in other regions, and with different types of land use practices.

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at

The Journal of Environmental Quality is a peer-reviewed, international journal of environmental quality in natural and agricultural ecosystems published six times a year by the American Society of Agronomy (ASA), Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), and the Soil Science Society of America (SSSA). The Journal of Environmental Quality covers various aspects of anthropogenic impacts on the environment, including terrestrial, atmospheric, and aquatic systems.

The American Society of Agronomy (ASA), is a scientific society helping its 8,000+ members advance the disciplines and practices of agronomy by supporting professional growth and science policy initiatives, and by providing quality, research-based publications and a variety of member services.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) is a progressive, international scientific society that fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. Based in Madison, WI, SSSA is the professional home for 6,000+ members dedicated to advancing the field of soil science. It provides information about soils in relation to crop production, environmental quality, ecosystem sustainability, bioremediation, waste management, recycling, and wise land use.

SSSA supports its members by providing quality research-based publications, educational programs, certifications, and science policy initiatives via a Washington, DC, office. Founded in 1936, SSSA celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year (2011). For more information, visit or follow @SSSA_soils on Twitter.

The Crop Science Society of America (CSSA), founded in 1955, is an international scientific society comprised of 6,000+ members with its headquarters in Madison, WI. Members advance the discipline of crop science by acquiring and disseminating information about crop breeding and genetics; crop physiology; crop ecology, management, and quality; seed physiology, production, and technology; turfgrass science; forage and grazinglands; genomics, molecular genetics, and biotechnology; and biomedical and enhanced plants.

CSSA fosters the transfer of knowledge through an array of programs and services, including publications, meetings, career services, and science policy initiatives. For more information, visit

Sara Uttech | Newswise Science News
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