WRIR 96-4037

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Ham, L.K., and Hatzell, H.H., 1996, Analysis of Nutrients in the Surface Waters of the Georgia-Florida Coastal Plain Study Unit, 1970-91: U.S. Geological Survey Water-Resources Investigations Report 96-4037, 67 p.


During the early phase of the Georgia-Florida National Water Quality Assessment study, existing information on nutrients was compiled and analyzed in order to evaluate the nutrient concentrations within the 61,545 square mile study unit. Evaluation of the nutrient concentrations collected at surface-water sites between October 1, 1970, and September 30, 1991, utilized the environmental characteristics of land resource provinces, land use, and nonpoint and point-source discharges within the study unit. Long-term trends were investigated to determine the temporal distribution of nutrient concentrations. In order to determine a level of concern for nutrient concentrations, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) guidelines were used: (1) for nitrate concentrations, the maximum contaminant level in public-drinking water supplies (10 mg/L); (2) for ammonia concentrations, the chronic exposure of aquatic organisms to un-ionized ammonia (2.1 mg/L); (3) for total-phosphorus concentrations, the recommended concentration in flowing water to discourage excessive growth of aquatic plants (0.1 mg/L); and (4) for kjeldahl concentrations, however, no guidelines were available.

For sites within the 10 major river basins, median nutrient concentrations were enerally below USEPA guidelines, except for total-phosphorus concentrations where 45 percent of the medians exceeded the guideline. The only median ammonia concentration that exceeded the guideline occurred at the Swift Creek site (3.4 mg/L), in the Suwannee River basin, perhaps due to wastewater discharges. For all sites within the Withlacoochee, Aucilla, and St. Marys River basins, median concentrations of nitrate, ammonia, and total phosphorus were below the USEPA guidelines.

Nutrient data at each monitoring site within each major basin were aggregated for comparisons of median nutrient concentrations among major basins. The Ochlockonee and Hillsborough River basins had the highest median nutrient concentrations, the Aucilla River basin had the lowest. Median concentrations of nitrate and ammonia among all major basins were below USEPA guidelines. The median total-phosphorus concentrations for the following river basins exceeded the USEPA guideline: Hillsborough, St. Johns, Suwannee, Ochlockonee, Satilla, Altamaha, and Ogeechee.

Although nutrient concentrations within the study unit were low, long-term increasing trends were found in all four nutrients. All 18 study-unit wide nitrate trends had increasing slopes ranging from less than 0.01 to 0.07 (mg/L)/yr. The range in slope for the 13 ammonia trends was -0.03 to 0.01 (mg/L)/yr with 6 increasing trends in the northern part of the study unit. Of the 17 total-phosphorus trends found in the study unit, 10 were found at sites where the median concentration exceeded the USEPA guideline. At these 10 sites, 4 sites had increasing trends with slopes ranging from less than 0.01 to 0.07 (mg/L)/yr, 5 sites had decreasing trends with slopes ranging from -0.01 to -0.24 (mg/L)/yr, and one site showed a seasonal concentration trend.

Median nutrient concentrations were significantly different among the four land resource provinces: Southern Piedmont, Southern Coastal Plain, Coastal Flatwoods, and Central Florida Ridge. As a result, nutrient concentrations among basins with similar nutrient inputs but located within different land resource provinces are not expected to be the same due to differences in the combination of factors such as soil permeability, runoff rates, and stream channel slopes. This concept is an important consideration in designing a surface-water quality network within the study area. For the most part, the Coastal Flatwoods showed the lowest median nutrient concentrations and the Southern Coastal Plain had the highest median nutrient concentrations.

Lower median nitrate concentrations in surface-water basins were associated with the forest/wetland land-use category and higher median concentrations of nitrate and ammonia with the urban category when land-use percentages were classified into four land-use categories (agriculture, forest/wetland, mixed, and urban). These results were reasonable based on expected high nutrient inputs from urban areas and low inputs from forested and wetland areas. However, the lack of association between high nutrient concentrations and the agricultural land-use category was not expected since high nutrient inputs are generally needed for agriculture production.

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