Confounding effect of flow on estuarine response to nitrogen loading


The total maximum daily load (TMDL) concept provides the basis for regulating pollution load from riverine sources to impaired water bodies. However, load is comprised of two components: flow and concentration. These two components may have confounding, or even conflicting, effects on waterbody attributes of concern. This is particularly the case for dynamic, advective systems, such as estuaries. Resolving these components is critical for properly predicting the response of impaired systems to watershed management actions. The Neuse River Estuary in North Carolina is an example of such an impaired system. Nitrogen has been identified as the pollutant of concern, and the process of developing a TMDL for nitrogen is underway. We, therefore, analyze the extensive data that have been collected for the Neuse River and estuary to investigate spatiotemporal relationships between river flow, riverine total nitrogen (TN) inputs, water temperature, dissolved inorganic nitrogen concentration, algal density, and primary productivity. Results support the belief that phytoplankton in the estuary are under substantial riverine control. However, the riverine TN concentration alone has only a minor role in determining estuarine chlorophyll a concentration. River flow has a stronger influence, likely through its effects on down-estuary nitrogen delivery, residence time, salinity, and turbidity. These results imply that using riverine nitrogen load as the metric to evaluate watershed nutrient management may not be appropriate. While nitrogen controls should reduce loads in the long term, in the short term, river flow is the dominant component of load and has the opposite effect of nitrogen on algae at the up-estuary locations. © ASCE / JUNE 2004.