Few elements in surface waters are monitored as closely as phosphorus (P) due to its role in the eutrophication and degradation of surface waters. Limiting P mobilization from source areas is, therefore, a central goal of water quality protection plans. But the work of locating sources in mixed-use watersheds is challenged by the spatial and temporal variability of critical source areas (CSAs) of P. Synoptic sampling is a proven method for capturing the spatial variation of water quality parameters in surface waters, though it's not often used to track temporal dynamics across the same study area. Phosphorus fractionation is an analytical method that divides the total P (TP) in water into fractions, which for this study included total dissolved P (TDP), particulate P (PP), dissolved reactive P (DRP), and dissolved organic P (DOP). The objective of this study was to demonstrate the utility of combining temporally repeated synoptic sampling with simple P fractionation as a unique strategy for locating and characterizing CSAs of P. Seven synoptic sampling campaigns were conducted over a two-year period (March 2015 – July 2016) in a rural, montane watershed in north central Utah, USA. In each campaign, we sampled 18 sites across three tributaries (Main Creek, Spring Creek, and Little Hobble Creek) during three distinct, annual hydrologic periods (rising flow, peak flow, and baseflow). Temporal repetition clearly identified the rising flow period as the period with greatest P loading in the watershed. Combining repeated synoptic sampling and P fractionation successfully identified CSAs of P and most probable transfer pathways. Specifically, stream segments along lower Spring Creek and Main Creek were associated with the greatest increases of PP loads during periods of rising flow and peak flow. In the same time periods, the greatest DOP loads stemmed from forested areas as well as areas in the lower watershed associated with winter grazing of cattle. The watershed exhibited a significant background concentration of DRP from groundwater-driven subsurface sources in the lower half of the watershed that persisted year-round. These assessments can be used to develop management practices that limit various P loads from these respective critical source areas. The characterization of CSAs could not have been made using only a traditional synoptic sampling approach. This study demonstrated that the combination of repeated synoptic sampling and P fractionation can be an effective technique for locating and characterizing critical P source areas in order to guide best management practices that improve surface water quality.



College and Department

Life Sciences; Plant and Wildlife Sciences



Date Submitted


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water quality, critical source area, watershed, phosphorus, synoptic sampling, best management practice, hydrology, Wallsburg, Utah