Long-term changes in watershed nutrient inputs and riverine exports in the Neuse River, North Carolina.


We compared patterns of historical watershed nutrient inputs with in-river nutrient loads for the Neuse River, NC. Basin-wide sources of both nitrogen and phosphorus have increased substantially during the past century, marked by a sharp increase in the last 10 years resulting from an intensification of animal production. However, this recent increase is not reflected in changes in river loading over the last 20 years. Temporal patterns in river loads more closely parallel short-term changes in point sources and cropland nutrient application despite their overall lower magnitude. Total phosphorus loads have declined at all stations considered, corresponding to a 1988 phosphate detergent ban. Nitrogen load temporal patterns vary by location and the nitrogen fraction considered. The furthest upstream station exhibited nitrogen decreases after the completion of a dam in 1983. At a station just downstream of a rapidly growing urban area, the total nitrogen load has increased since the mid-1980s, primarily as a nitrate concentration increase. This is consistent with concurrent increases in chemical fertilizer use and point source discharges, as well as increased nitrification at treatment plants. This increase in nitrate loading is not reflected at the most downstream station, where no clear nitrogen trends are discernable. The lack of clear downstream nutrient increases suggests that current water quality impairment in the lower river and estuary may result from chronic nutrient overload rather than recent changes in the watershed. If this is true, then the impact of a planned 30% nitrogen loading reduction may not be immediately apparent. We calculate that, given annual variability, detecting a load reduction of this magnitude will take at least four years, and, should nutrients accumulated in the watershed become a significant source, detecting the resulting ecological improvements is likely to take substantially longer.