Comprehensive trend analysis of nutrients and related variables in a large eutrophic estuary: A decadal study of anthropogenic and climatic influences

Burkholder, JoAnn M., David A. Dickey, Carol A. Kinder, Robert E. Reed, Michael A. Mallin, Matthew R. McIver, Lawrence B. Cahoon, Greg Melia, Cavell Brownie, Joy Smith, Nora Deamer, Jeffrey Springer, Howard B. Glasgow, David Toms

Limnol. Oceanogr., 51(1_part_2), 2006, 463-487 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2006.51.1_part_2.0463

ABSTRACT: We used a decadal data set, with weekly to biweekly sampling in April-October and monthly sampling in November- March, to characterize climatic (hurricane-level storms, a sustained 3-yr drought) and anthropogenic influences on N and P concentrations and loadings to a large eutrophic, poorly flushed estuary, the Neuse Estuary of the Albemarle-Pamlico Estuarine System. Mass volume transport data were obtained with cross-estuary transect flow measurements taken near the entrance to the estuary. Although trends were minimally influenced by hurricanes, analyses were significantly affected by the sustained drought near the end of the study. As examples, decreasing trends in total N (TN), total P (TP), and bottom-water dissolved oxygen concentrations, and in TN loadings were significant considering all data, but these trends were not significant when the sustained drought was excluded from analysis. In addition, the trend in TN loading was especially sensitive to the initial sampling period. NH4+ concentrations dramatically increased (overall by ~500%) as a persistent trend regardless of attempts to control for climatic events. An increasing trend in NH4+ also was documented in an adjacent, rapidly flushed Coastal Plain estuary, the Cape Fear. The NH4+ data suggest a regional-scale effect of high inputs from inadequately controlled, increasing nonpoint sources. The fragility of TN loading trends, the striking increase in NH4+ concentrations, and the lack of management emphasis on controlling nonpoint sources such as ‘‘new’’ industrialized swine production collectively do not support recent reports of achievement of a 30% reduction in TN loading to the Neuse. Nonpoint sources remain a critical target for reduction to alleviate the negative effects of cultural eutrophication in this system, as in many estuaries throughout the world.

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