Estimating nutrient and sediment threshold criteria for biological impairment in Pennsylvania watersheds

Scott A. Sheeder, Barry M. Evans

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

26 Scopus citations


This study employs a simple nonlinear statistical approach to establish nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment concentration and unit area load thresholds to aid in the evaluation of aquatic biological health of watersheds within the state of Pennsylvania. Flow, nitrogen and phosphorus species, sediment, basin area, land cover, and biological assessment data were assembled for 29 Pennsylvania watersheds. For each watershed, rating curves depicting flow versus load relationships were developed using the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (USEPA's) storage and retrieval database (STORET) flow and concentration data, then applied to daily flow data obtained from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) daily flow gauging stations to estimate daily load between 1989 and 1999. The load estimates and concentration data were then sorted into six sets of data: mean annual unit area nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment loads; and average nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment concentrations. Results of Mann-Whitney tests conducted on each of the six datasets indicate that there is a statistically significant difference between the concentrations and unit area loads of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment in impaired and unimpaired watersheds. Concentration thresholds, calculated as the midpoint between the impaired and unimpaired watersheds' 95 percent confidence interval for the median, were estimated to be 2.01 mg/L, 0.07 mg/L, and 197.27 mg/L for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, respectively. Annual unit area load thresholds were estimated to be equal to 8.64 kg/ha, 0.30 kg/ha, and 785.29 kg/ha, respectively, for nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment species.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)881-888
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of the American Water Resources Association
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2004

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Earth-Surface Processes


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