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Journal of Environmental Management

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Fertilizers and manure applied to cropland to increase yields are often lost via surface erosion, soil leaching, and runoff, increasing nutrient loads in surface and sub-surface waters, degrading water quality, and worsening the ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico. We leverage spatial and temporal variation in agricultural practices and precipitation events to examine how these factors affect stream total phosphorus (TP) concentrations and loads in the Sugar River (Wisconsin), recently listed as impaired. To perform our analysis, we first collected water quality data from 1995 to 2017 from 40 sites along the Sugar River and its tributaries. Starting in 2004, three dairy farms expanded to become concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in this watershed. We then estimated how time of year, stream position, discharge volume, and proximity to the newly expanded CAFOs affected TP concentrations and loads. Total P concentrations, which ranged from 0.02 to 1.4 mg/L and often exceeded the EPA surface water standard of 0.1 mg/L, increased with increases in stream discharge and proximity to dairy operations, peaking in early spring to mid-summer coincident with extreme precipitation events. Our empirical analysis also shows that TP concentrations downstream from the newly permitted CAFOs increased by 19% relative to upstream concentrations. When examining total daily phosphorus loads (concentration × discharge) from this 780 km2 watershed, we found that loads ranged from 5.88 to 4801 kg. Compared to upstream TP loads, those downstream from the CAFOs increased by 91% after the expansions – over four times that of concentration increases – implying that the rate of downstream phosphorus transfer has increased due to CAFO expansion. Our results argue for standards that focus on loads rather than concentrations and monitoring that includes peak events. As agriculture intensifies and extreme rainfall events become more frequent, it becomes increasingly important to limit soil and TP runoff from manure and fertilizer. Siting CAFOs carefully, limiting their size, and improving farming practices in proximity to CAFOs in spring and early summer could considerably reduce nutrient loads.


Accepted version. Journal of Environmental Management, Vol. 284 (April 2021): 112019. DOI. © 2021 Elsevier. Used with permission.

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