Nutrient enrichment is currently a leading cause of impairment to streams in Pennsylvania. Evaluating the water quality condition and eutrophic status of streams and rivers is a challenge without established thresholds for nutrient concentrations, which can vary depending on climate and landscape characteristics. The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has published nutrient criteria for nutrient ecoregions nationwide that are used as regional baseline values; and has encouraged states to develop more refined values if better data are available. In this study, we quantified long-term nutrient concentrations observed in streams and rivers across Pennsylvania using a robust water quality dataset compiled from monitoring data collected over the past two decades (2000–2019) by multiple agencies. We estimated nutrient criteria concentration thresholds for each ecoregion using USEPA’s percentile approach. The 25th percentile median concentrations observed in streams and rivers ranged from 0.27 to 2.30 mg/L for total nitrogen (TN), and from 0.010 to 0.053 mg/L for total phosphorus (TP). The percent of sites with available data that exceeded the 25th percentile was 53% for TN and 60% for TP, reflecting longstanding problems with nutrient pollution of rivers and streams in Pennsylvania. The 25th percentile may overestimate background condition levels, as nutrient conditions vary substantially within and among ecoregions. We compared our contemporary concentrations at the threshold values to other published recommended criteria for the region and explored the influence of landscape heterogeneity and seasonality on nutrient concentrations. Our results provide environmental managers with new insights regarding the status of nutrient conditions in streams and rivers across Pennsylvania ecoregions toward further developing numeric nutrient criteria.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Geography, Planning and Development
- Aquatic Science
- Water Science and Technology