Global food production depends on phosphorus. Phosphorus is broadly applied as fertilizer, but excess phosphorus contributes to eutrophication of surface water bodies and coastal ecosystems1. Here we present an analysis of phosphorus fluxes in three large river basins, including published data on fertilizer, harvested crops, sewage, food waste and river fluxes2,3,4. Our analyses reveal that the magnitude of phosphorus accumulation has varied greatly over the past 30–70 years in mixed agricultural–urban landscapes of the Thames Basin, UK, the Yangtze Basin, China, and the rural Maumee Basin, USA. Fluxes of phosphorus in fertilizer, harvested crops, food waste and sewage dominate over the river fluxes. Since the late 1990s, net exports from the Thames and Maumee Basins have exceeded inputs, suggesting net mobilization of the phosphorus pool accumulated in earlier decades. In contrast, the Yangtze Basin has consistently accumulated phosphorus since 1980. Infrastructure modifications such as sewage treatment and dams may explain more recent declines in total phosphorus fluxes from the Thames and Yangtze Rivers3,4. We conclude that human-dominated river basins may undergo a prolonged but finite accumulation phase when phosphorus inputs exceed agricultural demand, and this accumulated phosphorus may continue to mobilize long after inputs decline.

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Work was supported by the NSF Research Coordination Network Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability Program (RCN-SEES, award #1230603), the University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, the National Basic Research Program of China (973-2015CB150405), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (31330070), and the Washington State University Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO).

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  1. Center for Environmental Research, Education, and Outreach (CEREO), Washington State University, Pullman, Washington 99164, USA

    • Stephen M. Powers
  2. International Plant Nutrition Institute, Guelph, Ontario N1G 1LB, Canada

    • Thomas W. Bruulsema
  3. Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

    • Tim P. Burt
  4. School of Life Sciences, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287, USA

    • Neng Iong Chan
    •  & James J. Elser
  5. Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YW, UK

    • Philip M. Haygarth
  6. Department of Civil Engineering, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1TR, UK

    • Nicholas J. K. Howden
  7. Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Wallingford, Oxfordshire OX10 8BB, UK

    • Helen P. Jarvie
  8. Department of Plant Nutrition, China Agricultural University, Key Laboratory of Plant-Soil Interactions, Ministry of Education, 100094 Beijing, China

    • Yang Lyu
    • , Jianbo Shen
    •  & Fusuo Zhang
  9. Minnesota Department of Agriculture, St Paul, Minnesota 55155, USA

    • Heidi M. Peterson
  10. Crop, Soil, & Environmental Sciences, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, Arkansas 72701, USA

    • Andrew N. Sharpley
  11. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Durham, Durham DH1 3LE, UK

    • Fred Worrall


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S.M.P. led the writing of the paper, compiled the data, and analysed the data. Key P data sets were contributed by H.P.J., N.J.K.H., F.W., T.W.B. and J.S. All authors participated in the interpretation of results and the writing and editing process.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Correspondence to Stephen M. Powers.

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