Impact of dredging on phosphorus transport in agricultural ditches

ABSTRACT: Drainage ditches can be a key conduit of phosphorus (P) between agricultural soils of the Atlantic Coastal Plain and local surface waters, including the Chesapeake Bay. This study sought to quantify the effect of a common ditch management practice, sediment dredging, on fate of P in drainage ditches. Sediments from two drainage ditches that had been monitored for seven years and had similar characteristics (flow, P loadings, sediment properties) were sampled (0-5 cm) after one of the ditches had been dredged, which removed fine textured sediments (clay = 41%) with high organic matter content (85 g / kg) and exposed coarse textured sediments (clay = 15%) with low organic matter content (2.2 g / kg). Sediments were subjected to a three-phase experiment (equilibrium, uptake, and release) in recirculating 10-m-long, 0.2-m-wide, and 5-cm-deep flumes to evaluate their role as sources and sinks of P. Under conditions of low initial P concentrations in flume water, sediments from the dredged ditch released 13 times less P to the water than did sediments from the ditch that had not been dredged, equivalent to 24 mg dissolved P. However, the sediments from the dredged ditch removed 19% less P (76 mg) from the flume water when it was spiked with dissolved P to approximate long-term runoff concentrations. Irradiation of sediments to destroy microorganisms revealed that biological processes accounted for up to 30% of P uptake in the coarse textured sediments of the dredged ditch and 18% in the fine textured sediments of the undredged ditch. Results indicate that dredging of coastal plain drainage ditches can potentially impact the P buffering capacity of ditches draining agricultural soils with a high potential for P runoff. (KEY TERMS: nonpoint source pollution; nutrients; transport and fate; water conservation.)