Improving in-stream nutrient routines in water quality models using stable isotope tracers: A review and synthesis

A. Jensen, W. Ford, J. Fox, A. Husic

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Water quality models serve as an economically feasible alternative to quantify fluxes of nutrient pollution and to simulate effective mitigation strategies; however, their applicability is often questioned due to broad uncertainties in model structure and parameterization, leading to uncertain outputs. We argue that reduction of uncertainty is partially achieved by integrating stable isotope data streams within the water quality model architecture. This article outlines the use of stable isotopes as a response variable within water quality models to improve the model boundary conditions associated with nutrient source provenance, constrain model parameterization, and elucidate shortcomings in the model structure. To assist researchers in future modeling efforts, we provide an overview of stable isotope theory; review isotopic signatures and applications for relevant carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus pools; identify biotic and abiotic processes that impact isotope transfer between pools; review existing models that have incorporated stable isotope signatures; and highlight recommendations based on synthesis of existing knowledge. Broadly, we find existing applications that use isotopes have high efficacy for reducing water quality model uncertainty. We make recommendations toward the future use of sediment stable isotope signatures, given their integrative capacity and practical analytical process. We also detail a method to incorporate stable isotopes into multi-objective modeling frameworks. Finally, we encourage watershed modelers to work closely with isotope geochemists to ensure proper integration of stable isotopes into in-stream nutrient fate and transport routines in water quality models.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)139-157
Number of pages19
JournalTransactions of the ASABE
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank the University of Kentucky Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering for partial funding of the graduate student while at the University of Kentucky. We gratefully acknowledge financial support of this research under National Science Foundation Award No. 163288, which provided partial support for the graduate student and corresponding author. This is Publication No. 17-05-074 of the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and is published with the approval of the Director. This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Finally, we thank the three anonymous reviewers whose input and suggestions greatly improved the quality of the manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018 American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.


  • Isotopes
  • Nutrients
  • Uncertainty analysis
  • Water quality modeling
  • Watershed

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Forestry
  • Food Science
  • Biomedical Engineering
  • Agronomy and Crop Science
  • Soil Science


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