Cultural eutrophication in the Choptank and Patuxent estuaries of Chesapeake Bay

Fisher, T. R., J. D. Hagy III, W. R. Boynton, M. R. Williams

Limnol. Oceanogr., 51(1_part_2), 2006, 435-447 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2006.51.1_part_2.0435

ABSTRACT: The Choptank and Patuxent tributaries of Chesapeake Bay have become eutrophic over the last 50-100 years. Systematic monitoring of nutrient inputs began in ~1970, and there have been 2-5-fold increases in nitrogen (N) and phosphorus (P) inputs during 1970-2004 due to sewage discharges, fertilizer applications, atmospheric deposition, and changes in land use. Hydrochemical modeling and land-use yield coefficients suggest that current input rates are 4-20 times higher for N and P than under forested conditions existing 350 yr ago. Sewage is a major cause of increased nutrients in the Patuxent; agricultural inputs dominate in the Choptank. These loading increases have caused three major water-quality problems: (1) increased nutrients, phytoplankton, and turbidity; (2) decreased submerged grasses due to higher turbidity and epiphyton shading; and (3) bottom-water hypoxia due to respiration of excess organic matter. Oxygen in the Patuxent is consistently <3 mg L-1 in bottom waters in summer, whereas oxygen in Choptank bottom waters has been decreasing for the last 20 yr and is now approaching 3 mg L-1 in wet years. The low N: P of sewage inputs to the Patuxent results in an N-limited, P-saturated system, whereas the Choptank is primarily limited by N, but with P limitation of phytoplankton during spring river flows. Insufficient action has been taken to improve the water and habitat quality of these estuaries, although reduced eutrophication in dry years suggests that both estuaries will respond to significant decreases in nutrients.

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