DOI: 10.2134/jeq1998.00472425002700020004x ISSN:

The Role of Phosphorus in the Eutrophication of Receiving Waters: A Review

David L. Correll
  • Management, Monitoring, Policy and Law
  • Pollution
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Environmental Engineering


Phosphorus (P) is an essential element for all life forms. It is a mineral nutrient. Orthophosphate is the only form of P that autotrophs can assimilate. Extracellular enzymes hydrolyze organic forms of P to phosphate. Eutrophication is the overenrichment of receiving waters with mineral nutrients. The results are excessive production of autotrophs, especially algae and cyanobacteria. This high productivity leads to high bacterial populations and high respiration rates, leading to hypoxia or anoxia in poorly mixed bottom waters and at night in surface waters during calm, warm conditions. Low dissolved oxygen causes the loss of aquatic animals and release of many materials normally bound to bottom sediments including various forms of P. This release of P reinforces the eutrophication. Excessive concentrations of P is the most common cause of eutrophication in freshwater lakes, reservoirs, streams, and headwaters of estuarine systems. In the ocean, N becomes the key mineral nutrient controlling primary production. Estuaries and continental shelf waters are a transition zone, where excessive P and N create problems. It is best to measure and regulate total P inputs to whole aquatic ecosystems, but for an easy assay it is best to measure total P concentrations, including paniculate P, in surface waters or N/P atomic ratios in phytoplankton.

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