EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Beyond the Mass Balance: Watershed phosphorus legacies and the evolution of the current water quality policy challenge

Nandita Basu1,3, Kimberly Van Meter2, Phillipe Van Cappellen3, Yuhe Liu1, Meghan McLeod1, Roland Hall4, and Guy Tenkuano3
Nandita Basu et al.
  • 1University of Waterloo, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Waterloo, Canada (
  • 2University of Illinois at Chicago, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Canada (
  • 3University of Waterloo, Earth and Environmental Engineering, Waterloo, Canada (
  • 4University of Waterloo, Department of Biology, Waterloo, Canada

Increased use of phosphorus (P) fertilizers and detergents, as well as the growth of animal feeding operations, have more than doubled P inputs to human-impacted watersheds over pre-industrial levels. While P fertilizer use and manure application help to maximize crop yields, excess P is lost to runoff, leading to eutrophication of downstream waters—a phenomenon of great concern in the North American Great Lakes region. Excess P also accumulates across the landscape, leading to legacies that serve as long-term sources of P to surface waters, even after inputs to the watershed are reduced. We developed, for the first time, a process-based model, ELEMeNT-P, designed to capture legacy P accumulation and depletion trajectories along the land-aquatic continuum. To drive the model, we reconstructed a more than 100-year trajectory of P inputs to the Grand River Watershed (GRW), Canada’s largest river basin draining directly to Lake Erie. Our results show that since 1900 the GRW has served as a net P sink, with an estimated accumulation of more than 480 ktons P, of which 89% resides in soils and 6% in reservoirs and riparian areas. Future simulations suggest that while a 40% reduction in P discharge to Lake Erie is possible under aggressive management scenarios, legacy P will continue to elevate P loads to Lake Erie for centuries.

How to cite: Basu, N., Van Meter, K., Van Cappellen, P., Liu, Y., McLeod, M., Hall, R., and Tenkuano, G.: Beyond the Mass Balance: Watershed phosphorus legacies and the evolution of the current water quality policy challenge, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-20724,, 2020