Beyond the Mass Balance: Watershed Phosphorus Legacies and the Evolution of the Current Water Quality Policy Challenge

K. J. Van Meter, M. M. McLeod, J. Liu, G. Thierry Tenkouano, R. I. Hall, P. Van Cappellen, N. B. Basu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


Increased use of phosphorus (P) fertilizers and detergents and intensified livestock production have more than doubled P inputs to human-impacted watersheds over pre-industrial levels. While P fertilizer use and manure application help to maximize crop yields, excess P is lost to runoff, leading to eutrophication of downstream waters. Excess P also accumulates across the landscape, leading to legacies that serve as long-term sources of P to surface waters, even after inputs to the watershed are reduced. Here, we have developed, for the first time, a process-based model, Exploration of Long-tErM Nutrient Trajectories-Phosphorus, designed to capture legacy P accumulation and depletion trajectories along the land-aquatic continuum. To drive the model, we have developed a more than 100-year trajectory of watershed P inputs to the Grand River Watershed (GRW), Canada’s largest watershed draining directly to Lake Erie. Our results first show that net P inputs to the watershed approximately tripled between 1900 and the late-1970s, when P surplus magnitudes peaked at approximately 15 kg ha−1 y−1. During this same period, stream P loads have increased more than fourfold, from 0.11 kg ha−1 y−1 in 1900 to 0.80 kg ha−1 y−1 in the 1970s. Since 1900, the GRW has served as a net P sink, with approximately 96% of net P inputs having been retained within the basin. Future simulations suggest that while 40% reductions in P loading in Lake Erie watersheds are possible under aggressive management scenarios, legacy P will continue to elevate P loads to Lake Erie for many decades to come.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere2020WR029316
JournalWater Resources Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Water Science and Technology


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