Spatial-Temporal Heterogeneity in Regional Watershed Phosphorus Cycles Driven by Changes in Human Activity over the Past Century

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 8:00 AM
Rebecca L Hale, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT, United States, Nancy B Grimm, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ, United States and Charles J Vorosmarty, CCNY-Environ Crossroads Initi, New York, NY, United States
An ongoing challenge for society is to harness the benefits of phosphorus (P) while minimizing negative effects on downstream ecosystems. To meet this challenge we must understand the controls on the delivery of anthropogenic P from landscapes to downstream ecosystems. We used a model that incorporates P inputs to watersheds, hydrology, and infrastructure (sewers, waste-water treatment plants, and reservoirs) to reconstruct historic P yields for the northeastern U.S. from 1930 to 2002. At the regional scale, increases in P inputs were paralleled by increased fractional retention, thus P loading to the coast did not increase significantly. We found that temporal variation in regional P yield was correlated with P inputs. Spatial patterns of watershed P yields were best predicted by inputs, but the correlation between inputs and yields in space weakened over time, due to infrastructure development. Although the magnitude of infrastructure effect was small, its role changed over time and was important in creating spatial and temporal heterogeneity in input-yield relationships. We then conducted a hierarchical cluster analysis to identify a typology of anthropogenic P cycling, using data on P inputs (fertilizer, livestock feed, and human food), infrastructure (dams, wastewater treatment plants, sewers), and hydrology (runoff coefficient). We identified 6 key types of watersheds that varied significantly in climate, infrastructure, and the types and amounts of P inputs. Annual watershed P yields and retention varied significantly across watershed types. Although land cover varied significantly across typologies, clusters based on land cover alone did not explain P budget patterns, suggesting that this variable is insufficient to understand patterns of P cycling across large spatial scales. Furthermore, clusters varied over time as patterns of climate, P use, and infrastructure changed. Our results demonstrate that the drivers of P cycles are spatially and temporally heterogeneous, yet they also suggest that a relatively simple typology of watersheds can be useful for understanding regional P cycles and may help inform P management approaches.