Chesapeake legacies: The importance of legacy nitrogen to improving Chesapeake Bay water quality

S. Y. Chang, Q. Zhang, D. K. Byrnes, N. B. Basu, K. J. van Meter

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

37 Scopus citations


In the Chesapeake Bay, excess nitrogen (N) from both landscape and atmospheric sources has for decades fueled algal growth, disrupted aquatic ecosystems, and negatively impacted coastal economies. Since the 1980s, Chesapeake Bay Program partners have worked to implement a wide range of measures across the region-from the upgrading of wastewater treatment plants to implementation of farm-level best management practices-to reduce N fluxes to the Bay. Despite widespread implementation of such measures and notable reductions in N inputs, water quality across the region has been slow to improve. Such lack of response has in some cases been attributed to N legacies-accumulations of surplus N in soils and groundwater-that can contribute to time lags between implementation of conservation measures and improvements in water quality. Here, we use the ELEMeNT-N modeling framework to explore the role of legacy N in slowing reductions in N loading to the Bay, and to provide estimates of the time required to meet water quality goals in nine major tributary watersheds. Our results first show that recent improvements in water quality can be attributed to decreases in N surplus magnitudes that began to occur in the 1970s and 1980s, and that such improvements will continue in the coming decades. Future simulations suggest that, even with no additional changes in current management practices, goals to reduce N loads across the region by 25% can nearly be met within the next two decades. The present results also suggest that time lags to achieving water quality may vary considerably in the individual study watersheds, with the longest lag times being found in the highly agricultural Choptank watershed, where N surplus magnitudes remain high and where legacy N remains a major control on water quality.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number085002
JournalEnvironmental Research Letters
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Renewable Energy, Sustainability and the Environment
  • General Environmental Science
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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