Characterizing bioavailable phosphorus concentrations in an agricultural stream during hydrologic and streambed disturbances

Matt T. Trentman, Jennifer L. Tank, Heather A.M. Shepherd, Allyson J. Marrs, Jonathan R. Welsh, Holly V. Goodson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


In freshwater ecosystems, phosphorus (P) is often considered a growth-limiting nutrient. The use of fertilizers on agricultural fields has led to runoff-driven increases in P availability in streams, and the subsequent eutrophication of downstream ecosystems. Isolated storms and periodic streambed dredging are examples of two common disturbances that contribute dissolved and particulate P to agricultural streams, which can be quantified as soluble reactive P (SRP) using the molybdate-blue method on filtered water samples, or total P (TP) measured using digestions on unfiltered water reflecting all forms of P. While SRP is often considered an approximation of bioavailable P (BAP), research has shown that this is not always the case. Current methods used to estimate BAP do not account for the role of biology (e.g., NaOH extractions) or require specialized platforms (e.g., algal bioassays). Here, in addition to routine analysis of SRP and TP, we used a novel yeast-based bioassay with unfiltered sample water to estimate BAP concentrations during two storms (top 80% and > 95% flow quantiles), and downstream of a reach where management-associated dredging disturbed the streambed. We found that the BAP concentrations were often greater than SRP, suggesting that SRP is not fully representative of P bioavailability. The SRP concentrations were similarly elevated during the two storms, but remained consistently low during streambed disturbance. In contrast, turbidity and TP were elevated during all events. The BAP concentrations were significantly related to turbidity during all disturbance events, but with TP only during storms. The novel yeast assay suggests that BAP export can exceed SRP, particularly when streams are not in equilibrium, such as the rising limb of storms or during active dredging.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)509-524
Number of pages16
Issue number3
StatePublished - Jul 2021


  • Agriculture
  • Bioavailable phosphorus
  • Phosphorus
  • Storms
  • Streambed disturbance
  • Yeast


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