, Volume 22, Issue 1, pp 91–109 | Cite as

Watershed Buffering of Legacy Phosphorus Pressure at a Regional Scale: A Comparison Across Space and Time

  • A. S. KusmerEmail author
  • J.-O. Goyette
  • G. K. MacDonald
  • E. M. Bennett
  • R. Maranger
  • P. J. A. Withers


Phosphorus (P) plays a crucial role in both agricultural production and water quality. There has been growing recognition of the importance of “legacy” P (surplus P that has accumulated in watersheds over time) for understanding contemporary water quality outcomes; however, little is known about how different watersheds respond to cumulative pressures from surplus P. The “buffering capacity” concept describes the ability of watersheds to attenuate P loading to surface waters by retaining P inputs over time. To explore the role of various watershed characteristics in buffering capacity, we used historic P data to calculate indices describing long- and short-term buffering for 16 large watersheds in southern Quebec, Canada, across a 30-year time span (1981–2011). We examined the correlation between these buffering capacity indicators and a set of key geochemical, hydrological, landscape and socio-ecological variables that we hypothesized could influence P buffering dynamics. Both short- and long-term buffering metrics were most strongly correlated with hydrological characteristics. Riverine TP flux across the watersheds was most strongly correlated with long-term buffering, which could represent a dominant influence of legacy P on contemporary riverine P flux. However, short- and long-term watershed buffering indices were not correlated with each other, suggesting distinctly different timescales and mechanisms of buffering. Combining estimates of long-term P accumulation along with biophysical characteristics of the watershed (including hydrology) explained a much greater share of the variation in riverine TP flux (R2 = 0.69) than biophysical characteristics alone (R2 = 0.36). Our findings reinforce the need to consider P buffering capacity and legacy P accumulation to help guide decision making around regional water quality targets across human-dominated landscapes.


phosphorus watershed agriculture historic legacy land use hydrology soil P nutrient budgets 



We thank Helen Jarvie and Donnacha Doody for comments on previous drafts. We thank Guillaume Larocque at the Québec Centre for Biodiversity Science for technical assistance and support. This research was funded by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) Discovery Grants (DG) to Elena Bennett and the Economics for the Anthropocene (E4A) program. We thank two anonymous reviewers for their invaluable feedback.

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 81 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • A. S. Kusmer
    • 1
    Email author
  • J.-O. Goyette
    • 2
  • G. K. MacDonald
    • 3
  • E. M. Bennett
    • 1
    • 4
  • R. Maranger
    • 2
  • P. J. A. Withers
    • 5
  1. 1.Department of Natural Resource SciencesMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  2. 2.Département de Sciences BiologiquesUniversité de MontréalMontrealCanada
  3. 3.Department of GeographyMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  4. 4.McGill School of EnvironmentMcGill UniversityMontrealCanada
  5. 5.Lancaster Environment CentreLancaster UniversityLancasterUK

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