Timing of riverine export of nitrate and phosphorus from agricultural watersheds in Illinois: implications for reducing nutrient loading to the Mississippi River

Environ Sci Technol. 2006 Jul 1;40(13):4126-31. doi: 10.1021/es052573n.


Agricultural watersheds in the upper Midwest are the major source of nutrients to the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, but temporal patterns in nutrient export and the role of hydrology in controlling export remain unclear. Here we reporton NO3(-)-N, dissolved reactive phosphorus (DRP), and total P export from three watersheds in Illinois during the past 8-12 years. Our program of intensive, long-term monitoring allowed us to assess how nutrient export was distributed across the range of discharge that occurred at each site and to examine mechanistic differences between NO3(-)-N and DRP export from the watersheds. Last, we used simple simulations to evaluate how nutrient load reductions might affect NO3(-)-N and P export to the Mississippi River from the Illinois watersheds. Artificial drainage through under-field tiles was the primary mechanism for NO3(-)-N export from the watersheds. Tile drainage and overland flow contributed to DRP export, whereas export of particulate P was almost exclusively from overland flow. The analyses revealed that nearly all nutrient export occurred when discharge was > or = median discharge, and extreme discharges (> or = 90th percentile) were responsible for >50% of the NO3(-)-N export and >80% of the P export. Additionally, the export occurred annually during a period beginning in mid-January and continuing through June. These patterns characterized all sites, which spanned a 4-fold range in watershed area. The simulations showed that reducing in-stream nutrient loads by as much as 50% during periods of low discharge would not affect annual nutrient export from the watersheds.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Agriculture*
  • Environmental Monitoring
  • Illinois
  • Models, Chemical
  • Nitrates / analysis*
  • Phosphorus / analysis*
  • Rain
  • Rivers / chemistry*
  • Time Factors
  • Water Movements*
  • Water Pollution, Chemical*


  • Nitrates
  • Phosphorus