Excessive soil phosphorus levels in eastern North Carolina: temporal and spatial distributions and relationships to agriculture and other land uses

350 210 Stroud Water Research Center

Cahoon, L.B., and S.H. Ensign. 2004. Nutrient Cycling in Agroecosystems 69:111–125.

doi: 10.1023/B:FRES.0000029676.21237.54


Numerous studies have shown that accumulation of excessive soil phosphorus raises the potential for phosphorus export and eutrophication of adjacent surface waters. Soil phosphorus data from the North Carolina Agronomy Division’s database were analyzed for two-year periods spanning the decades of the 1980s and 1990s for 39 eastern North Carolina counties. Eastern North Carolina supported extensive row crop agriculture, rapidly growing intensive livestock industries, and a growing human population during these decades. Excessive soil phosphorus levels, defined as having a soil phosphorus index (P-I, based on Mehlich III testing) > 100, occurred in over 40% of almost a million samples reported for the three two-year periods analyzed. Excessive soil P-I levels were most frequent in central eastern North Carolina, declined in the 1980s and rose again in the 1990s. The distribution of row crop area with excessive soil P-I levels was very similar in time and space. Increases in the area harvested for cotton (+635%) and pasture (+523%) with excessive soil P-I levels were particularly large during the 1990s, when crop areas harvested associated with excessive soil P-I levels for other major crops (corn, tobacco, peanuts) declined. Residential and recreational land uses were associated with similarly high frequencies of excessive soil P-I levels, but these land uses were relatively unimportant (<5% area) compared to agricultural land use (~34%) in the region. Recent increases in fertilizer shipments (approximately twofold in the late 1990s) likely reflected increased cotton production. Rapid growth in concentrated animal production (almost twofold increase in total animal units (AU) between 1992 and 2001), with accompanying land application of wastes, accounted for increases in soil P-I values in pasturelands in the 1990s, particularly in central eastern North Carolina, where these activities were concentrated. The potential threat to water quality from export of excessive soil phosphorus is therefore greatest in this region. North Carolina is currently developing a Phosphorus Loss Assessment Tool (PLAT) in an attempt to manage the challenge posed by excessive soil phosphorus levels.