Science Inventory

Stream nitrogen response to Clean Air Act policies in the US: An application of National Nutrient Inventory and the National Rivers and Streams Assessment


Lin, J., J. Compton, R. Sabo, A. Herlihy, M. Weber, J. Renee Brooks, Steve Paulsen, AND J. Stoddard. Stream nitrogen response to Clean Air Act policies in the US: An application of National Nutrient Inventory and the National Rivers and Streams Assessment. National Atmospheric Deposition Program (NADP) Fall Meeting and Scientific Symposium, Knoxville, TN, November 14 - 18, 2022.


Nitrogen deposition to the landscape of the eastern US has declined substantially since the initial enactment of the US Clean Air Act Amendment regulations in 1990. Although one of the goals of these regulations is to protect aquatic ecosystems from acidification and eutrophication from added N and S, few studies assess whether these reductions in N and S deposition have led to a widespread improvements in water quality. EPA scientists combined two EPA datasets: the National Nutrient Inventory and three National Rivers and Streams Assessment (NRSA) surveys that occurred approximately every 5 years from 2000-2014. Using a watershed approach, this EPA team documented changes in N inputs and stream N concentrations in areas where N deposition was the largest source of N inputs. While N deposition has declined across the US, only small and non-significant declines in nitrate were observed in the eastern US. Increases in organic N concentrations point toward a recovery from acidification, but overall total N increased across the country. Our work suggests that the response of watersheds and streams to Clean Air Act regulations may be complicated by the interaction between acidification and eutrophication recovery associated with declines in N and S deposition.


Air quality regulations have decreased nitrogen (N) and sulfur (S) deposition to the United States (US) landscape over the last several decades. To assess the stream response to declining deposition across the US, we combined the US EPA’s National Nutrient Inventory with N chemistry in small streams (watershed areas < 1000 km2) between 2000 and 2014 from the EPA’s National Rivers and Streams Assessment. We focus the analysis on watersheds where deposition was the largest N input to the watershed using the inventory data.  Weighted change analysis quantified that deposition declined across most of the US watersheds, especially across the Eastern region. However, average growing season stream nitrate concentrations showed only a small and non-significant decline in these areas. This small trend in nitrate was offset by a substantial and significant gain in total organic N (TON) concentrations across most of the US. Instead of a net decline, total N concentrations increased in these small streams where atmospheric deposition is the largest source across all regions. Increases in TON concentration coincided with reductions in atmospheric deposition of N and S, pointing toward a recovery from acidification, and is similar to recent increases in dissolved organic matter or “browning” of streams and lakes across northern latitudes. The water quality benefits of reducing N deposition loads through air quality regulations are masked by increases in organic nitrogen mobilization in small streams across the US. 

Record Details:

Product Published Date: 11/18/2022
Record Last Revised: 11/29/2022
OMB Category: Other
Record ID: 356364