Nitrate losses across 29 Iowa watersheds: Measuring long-term trends in the context of interannual variability

Danalatos, Gerasimos J. N.
Wolter, Calvin
Archontoulis, Sotirios V.
Castellano, Michael
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In the U.S. Corn Belt, annual croplands are the primary source of nitrate loading to waterways. Long periods of fallow cause most nitrate loss, but there is extreme interannual variability in the magnitude of nitrate loss due to weather. Using mean annual (2001–2018) flow-weighted nitrate-N concentration (FWNC; mg NO3––N L–1), load (kg NO3––N), and yield (kg NO3––N ha–1 cropland) for 29 watersheds, our objectives were (a) to quantify the magnitude and interannual variability of 5-yr moving average FWNC, load, and yield; (2) to estimate the probability of measuring 41% reductions in nitrate loss after isolating the effect of weather on nitrate loss by quantifying the interannual variability of nitrate loss in watersheds where there was no trend in 5-yr moving average nitrate loss (Iowa targets a 41% nitrate loss reduction from croplands); and (c) to identify factors that, in the absence of long-term trends in nitrate loss, best explain the interannual variability in nitrate loss. Averaged across all watersheds, the mean probability of measuring a statistically significant 41% reduction in FWNC across 15 yr, should it occur, was 96%. However, the probabilities of measuring 41% reductions in nitrate load and yield were only 44 and 32%. Across watersheds, soil organic matter, tile drainage, interannual variability of precipitation, and watershed area accounted for interannual variability in these nitrate loss indices. Our results have important implications for setting realistic timelines to measure nitrate loss reductions against the background of interannual weather variation and can help to target monitoring intensity across diverse watersheds.
This article is published as Danalatos, Gerasimos, Calvin Wolter, Sotirios Archontoulis, and Mike Castellano. Nitrate losses across 29 Iowa watersheds: Measuring long‐term trends in the context of interannual variability. 2022. doi:10.1002/jeq2.20349. Posted with permission. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited and is not used for commercial purposes.