Decadal changes in water quality and net productivity of a shallow Danish estuary following significant nutrient reductions

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We utilized an extensive data set (1977–2013) from a water quality monitoring program to investigate the recovery of a Danish estuary following large reductions in total phosphorus (TP) and total nitrogen (TN) loading. Monthly rates of net transport and biogeochemical transformation of dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) and phosphorus (DIP) were computed in two basins of the estuary using a box model approach, and oxygen-based rates of net ecosystem production (NEP) were determined. Since 1990, nutrient loading was reduced by 58 % for nitrogen and 80 % for phosphorus, causing significant decreases in DIN (60 %) and DIP (85 %) concentrations. Reductions in nutrient loadings and concentrations reduced annual chlorophyll levels by 50 % in the inner estuary and improved Secchi depth by approximately 1 m during the same period, particularly in the summer period. In the outer, deeper region of the estuary trends in water quality was less evident. Improvements in the inner estuary were strongly coupled to declines in DIN. Thresholds of DIN and DIP concentrations limiting phytoplankton growth indicated that both regions of the estuary were nitrogen limited. NEP rates indicated the development of more net autotrophic conditions over time that were likely associated with higher benthic primary production stimulated by improved light conditions. Box model computations revealed a modest reduction in summer net production of DIP over time, despite the persistence of elevated fluxes for several years after external loads were reduced. Since the mid-1990s, nutrient loading and transformation were stable while nutrient concentrations continued to decline and water quality improved in the inner estuary. The oligotrophication trajectory involved an initial fast transformation and modest retention of nutrients followed by a gradual decline in the rate of improvement towards a new stable condition.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEstuaries and Coasts
Pages (from-to)63-79
Number of pages17
Publication statusPublished - 2017


  • box model
  • long-term monitoring
  • net ecosystem production
  • oligotrophication
  • water quality


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