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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Riverine Nutrient Trends in the Sacramento and San Joaquin Basins, California: A Comparison to State and Regional Water Quality Policies


Non-point source (NPS) contaminant control strategies were initiated in California in the late 1980s under the authority of the State Porter–Cologne Act and eventually for the development of total maximum daily load (TMDL) plans, under the federal Clean Water Act. Most of the NPS TMDLs developed for California’s Central Valley (CV) region were related to pesticides, but not nutrients. Efforts to reduce pesticide loads and concentrations began in earnest around 1990. The NPS control strategies either encouraged or mandated the use of management practices (MPs). Although TMDLs were largely developed for pesticides, the resultant MPs might have affected the runoff of other potential contaminants (such as nutrients). This study evaluates the effect of agricultural NPS control strategies implemented in California’s CV before and between 1990 and 2013, on nutrients, by comparing trends in surface-water concentrations and loads. In general, use of MPs was encouraged during a “voluntary” period (1990 to 2004) and mandated during an “enforcement” period (2004 to 2013). Nutrient concentrations, loads, and trends were estimated by using a recently developed Weighted Regressions on Time, Discharge, and Season (WRTDS) model. Sufficient total phosphorus (TP), total nitrogen (TN), and nitrate (NO3) data were available to compare the voluntary and enforcement periods for twelve sites within the lower Sacramento and San Joaquin basins. Ammonia concentrations and fluxes were evaluated at a subset of these sites. For six of these sites, flow-normalized mean annual concentrations of TP or NO3 decreased at a faster rate during the enforcement period than during the voluntary period. Concentration changes during similar years and ranges of flow conditions suggest that MPs designed for pesticides may also have reduced nutrient loads. Results show that enforceable NPS policies, and accelerated MP implementation, limits NPS pollution, and may control runoff of non-targeted constituents such as nutrients.

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