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Colorado Water Science Center


National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program
South Platte River Basin Study

by David W. Litke 1


The South Platte River Basin was one of 20 river basins selected in 1991 for investigation as part of the U.S. Geological Survey's National Water-Quality Assessment (NAWQA) Program. Nationwide, nutrients have been identified as one of the primary nationwide water-quality concerns and are of particular interest in the South Platte River Basin where nutrient concentrations are large compared to concentrations in other NAWQA river basins. This report presents estimates of the magnitude of nutrient-source inputs to the South Platte River Basin, describes nutrient concentrations and loads in the South Platte River during different seasons, and presents comparisons of nutrient inputs to instream nutrient loads.

Annual nutrient inputs to the basin were estimated to be 306,000 tons of nitrogen and 41,000 tons of phosphorus. The principal nutrient sources were wastewater-treatment plants, fertilizer and manure applications, and atmospheric deposition.

To characterize nutrient concentrations and loads in the South Platte River during different seasons, five nutrient synoptic samplings were conducted during 1994 and 1995. Upstream from Denver, Colorado during April 1994 and January 1995, total nitrogen concentrations were less than 2 mg/L, and total phosphorus concentrations were less than 0.2 mg/L. The water in the river at this point was derived mostly from forested land use in the mountains west of Denver. Total nutrient concentrations increased through the Denver metropolitan area, and concentration peaks occurred just downstream from each of Denver's largest wastewater-treatment plants with maximum concentrations of 13.6 mg/L total nitrogen and 2.4 mg/L total phosphorus. Nutrient concentrations generally decreased downstream from Denver.

Upstream from Denver during April 1994 and January 1995, total nitrogen loads were less than 1000 lbs/d and total phosphorus loads were less than 125 lbs/d. Total nutrient loads increased through the Denver metropolitan area, and load peaks occurred just downstream from each of Denver's largest wastewater-treatment plants, with a maximum load of 14,000 lbs/d total nitrogen and 2,300 lbs/d total phosphorus. In April 1994 nutrient loads generally decreased from Henderson to North Platte. In January 1995, however, nutrient loads increased from Henderson to Kersey (maximum loads of 31,000 lbs/d total nitrogen and 3,000 lbs/d total phosphorus), and then decreased from Kersey to North Platte.

Seasonal nutrient loads were primarily dependent on streamflow. Total nitrogen loads were largest in June 1994 and January 1995 when streamflows also were largest. During June, streamflow was large, but nitrogen concentrations were small, which indicated that snowmelt runoff diluted the available supply of nitrogen. Total phosphorus loads were largest in June, when streamflow and phosphorus concentrations were large, which indicated an additional source of phosphorus during snowmelt runoff. Streamflow along the South Platte River was smallest in April and August 1994, and nutrient loads also were smallest during these months.

The downstream pattern for nutrient loads did not vary much by season. Loads were large at Henderson, decreased between Henderson and Kersey, and usually were largest at Kersey. The magnitude of the decrease in loads between Henderson and Kersey varied between synoptics and was dependant on the amount of water removed by irrigation ditches. Nutrient loads leaving the basin are very small compared to the estimated total nutrient inputs to the basin.

Streamflow balances indicated that the South Platte River is a gaining river throughout much of its length; streamflow-balance residuals were as large as 15 cubic feet per second per mile. Nutrient-load balances indicated that increases in river nitrate loads were, in some places, due to nitrification and, elsewhere, were due to the influx of nitrate-enriched groundwater to the river. Nutrient-load balances also indicated that the South Platte River was effluent-dominated from Denver to about 60 miles downstream from Denver.

1 U.S. Geological Survey, Box 25046, MS 415, Denver Federal Center, Lakewood, CO 80225

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