Response of chlorophyll a to total nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations in lotic ecosystems: a systematic review


Eutrophication of freshwater ecosystems resulting from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is a major environmental stressor across the globe. In this systematic review, we compiled and synthesized literature on sestonic and benthic chlorophyll a (chl-a) responses to total nitrogen (TN) and total phosphorus (TP) concentrations in the water column in streams and rivers to provide a state-of-the-science summary of nutrient impacts on these endpoints. This review was motivated by the need for comprehensive information on stressor-response relationships for the most common nutrient and biotic response measures used by state-level environmental managers in the United States to assess eutrophication of lotic ecosystems and support environmental decision making.


Searches for peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed articles were conducted using bibliographic databases, specialist websites, and search engines. These returns were supplemented with citation mapping and requests for material from experts. Articles were screened for relevance using pre-determined eligibility criteria, and risk of bias was evaluated for each included article based on study type-specific criteria. Narrative summaries and meta-analysis were used to evaluate four primary stressor-response relationships: TN-benthic chl-a, TP-benthic chl-a, TN-sestonic chl-a, and TP-sestonic chl-a. Potential effects of modifying factors and study validity on review conclusions were assessed via sensitivity and sub-group analysis and meta-regression.


Meta-analysis of 105 articles, representing 439 cause-effect pairs, showed that mean effect sizes of both benthic and sestonic chl-a responses to TN and TP were positive. Of the four stressor-response relationships examined, TP-sestonic chl-a had the most positive relationship, followed by TN-benthic chl-a, TN-sestonic chl-a, and TP-benthic chl-a. For individual U.S. states, mean effect sizes for the four stressor-response relationships were mostly positive, with a few exceptions. Chlorophyll measurement method had a moderately significant influence on mean effect size for TP-sestonic chl-a, with chl-a responding more strongly to TP if fluorometry versus spectrophotometry was used. Year of publication had a significant negative effect on mean effect size, as did mean nutrient concentration for both sestonic chl-a nutrient relationships. When the same study measured both TN and TP, chl-a tended to respond similarly to both nutrients. Sensitivity analysis indicated that conclusions are robust to studies with high risk of bias.


This systematic review confirms that nutrients consistently impact primary producer biomass in streams and rivers worldwide. It builds on previous literature syntheses evaluating chl-a responses to nutrient concentrations and confirms that benthic and sestonic chl-a respond positively to nutrients across a range of stream and river conditions, but also points to limits on these relationships (e.g., potential saturation at high nutrient concentrations). Lack of consistent reporting of contextual data limited our ability to examine how moderating factors influenced these stressor-response relationships. Overall, we provide nutrient managers responsible for protecting the quality of lotic ecosystems with a comprehensive evidence base for chl-a responses to TN and TP concentrations in the water column.


Nutrients, Pollution, Water quality, Stressor-response, Stream, River, Primary production, Eutrophication


Eutrophication of freshwater ecosystems resulting from nitrogen and phosphorus pollution is a major stressor across the globe. Despite recognition by scientists and stakeholders of the problems of nutrient pollution, rigorous synthesis of scientific evidence is still needed to inform nutrient-related management decisions, especially in streams and rivers. Nutrient stressor-response relationships are complicated by multiple interacting environmental factors, complex and indirect causal pathways involving diverse biotic assemblages and food web compartments, legacy (historic) nutrient sources such as agricultural sediments, and the naturally high spatiotemporal variability of lotic ecosystems. Determining nutrient levels at which ecosystems are affected is a critical first step for identifying, managing, and restoring aquatic resources impaired by eutrophication and maintaining currently unimpaired resources. The systematic review outlined in this protocol will compile and synthesize literature on the response of chlorophyll a to nutrients in streams, providing a state-of-the-science body of evidence to assess nutrient impacts to one of the most widely-used measures of eutrophication. This review will address two questions: “What is the response of chlorophyll a to total nitrogen and total phosphorus concentrations in lotic ecosystems?” and “How are these relationships affected by other factors?”


Searches for published and unpublished articles (peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed) will be conducted using bibliographic databases and search engines. Searches will be supplemented with bibliography searches and requests for material from the scientific and management community. Articles will be screened for relevance at the title/abstract and full text levels using pre-determined inclusion criteria; 10% (minimum 50, maximum 200) of screened papers will be examined by multiple reviewers to ensure consistent application of criteria. Study risk of bias will be evaluated using a questionnaire developed from existing frameworks and tailored to the specific study types this review will encounter. Results will be synthesized using meta-analysis of correlation coefficients, as well as narrative and tabular summaries, and will focus on the shape, direction, strength, and variability of available nutrient-chlorophyll relationships. Sensitivity analysis and meta-regression will be used to evaluate potential effects of study quality and modifying factors on nutrient-chlorophyll relationships.