A Bayesian changepoint-threshold model to examine the effect of TMDL implementation on the flow-nitrogen concentration relationship in the Neuse River basin
In-stream nutrient concentrations are well known to exhibit a strong relationship with river flow. The use of flow measurements to predict nutrient concentrations and subsequently nutrient loads is common in water quality modeling. Nevertheless, most adopted models assume that the relationship between flow and concentration is fixed across time as well as across different flow regimes. In this study, we developed a Bayesian changepoint-threshold model that relaxes these constraints and allows for the identification and quantification of any changes in the underlying flow-concentration relationship across time. The results from our study support the occurrence of a changepoint in time around the year 1999, which coincided with the period of implementing nitrogen control measures as part of the TMDL program developed for the Neuse Estuary in North Carolina. The occurrence of the changepoint challenges the underlying assumption of temporal invariance in the flow-concentrations relationship. The model results also point towards a transition in the river nitrogen delivery system from a point source dominated loading system towards a more complicated nonlinear system, where non-point source nutrient delivery plays a major role. Moreover, we use the developed model to assess the effectiveness of the nitrogen reduction measures in achieving a 30% drop in loading. The results indicate that while there is a strong evidence of a load reduction, there still remains a high level of uncertainty associated with the mean nitrogen load reduction. We show that the level of uncertainty around the estimated load reduction is not random but is flow related.