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Decline in Chinese lake phosphorus concentration accompanied by shift in sources since 2006


Domestic wastewater and agricultural activities are important sources of nutrient pollutants such as phosphorus and nitrogen. Upon reaching freshwater, these nutrients can lead to extensive growth of harmful algae, which results in eutrophication. Many Chinese lakes are subject to such eutrophication, especially in highly polluted areas, and as such, understanding nutrient fluxes to these lakes offers insights into the varying processes governing pollutant fluxes as well as lake water quality. Here we analyse water quality data, recorded between 2006 and 2014 in 862 freshwater lakes in four geographical regions of China, to assess the input of phosphorus from human activity. We find that improvements in sanitation of both rural and urban domestic wastewater have resulted in large-scale declines in lake phosphorus concentrations in the most populated parts of China. In more sparsely populated regions, diffuse sources such as aquaculture and livestock farming offset this decline. Anthropogenic deforestation and soil erosion may also offset decreases in point sources of pollution. In the light of these regional differences, we suggest that a spatially flexible set of policies for water quality control would be beneficial for the future health of Chinese lakes.

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Figure 1: Country-level changes of TP concentrations in Chinese lakes during 2006–2014.
Figure 2: Temporal changes of TP concentrations (monthly and annual) in lakes of China.
Figure 3: Anthropogenic P loadings and regional-level changes during 2006–2014.
Figure 4: Eutrophication potentials of freshwaters induced by anthropogenic P loadings in China (PDF.m3.year).


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We greatly appreciate the useful comments in the pre-reviews by D. E. Armstrong, College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA, and P. Whitehead, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK. We also appreciate the help from R. F. Wright, Norwegian Institute for Water Research, in the further improvement of the manuscript in the revision processes. D. Whitehead, Asian-English Language Services, UK, helped in the polishing of the language.

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Y.T., W.Z., X.W., Y.Z. and Y.L. conceived the study. J.L. and H.L. performed the calculation of eutrophication potential. Y.T., X.L., X.B. and Y.L. performed the calculation of the phosphorus discharges. Y.T., Y.L., R.-M.C., T.L., W.H. and Q.Z. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Yan Lin.

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Tong, Y., Zhang, W., Wang, X. et al. Decline in Chinese lake phosphorus concentration accompanied by shift in sources since 2006. Nature Geosci 10, 507–511 (2017).

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