Soil Science Society of America

Lag time in water quality response to best management practices: a review

Received for publication March 20, 2009. Nonpoint source (NPS) watershed projects often fail to meet expectations for water quality improvement because of lag time, the time elapsed between adoption of management changes and the detection of measurable improvement in water quality in the target water body. Even when management changes are well-designed and fully implemented, water quality monitoring efforts may not show definitive results if the monitoring period, program design, and sampling frequency are not sufficient to address the lag between treatment and response. The main components of lag time include the time required for an installed practice to produce an effect, the time required for the effect to be delivered to the water resource, the time required for the water body to respond to the effect, and the effectiveness of the monitoring program to measure the response. The objectives of this review are to explore the characteristics of lag time components, to present examples of lag times reported from a variety of systems, and to recommend ways for managers to cope with the lag between treatment and response. Important processes influencing lag time include hydrology, vegetation growth, transport rate and path, hydraulic residence time, pollutant sorption properties, and ecosystem linkages. The magnitude of lag time is highly site and pollutant specific, but may range from months to years for relatively short-lived contaminants such as indicator bacteria, years to decades for excessive P levels in agricultural soils, and decades or more for sediment accumulated in river systems. Groundwater travel time is also an important contributor to lag time and may introduce a lag of decades between changes in agricultural practices and improvement in water quality. Approaches to deal with the inevitable lag between implementation of management practices and water quality response lie in appropriately characterizing the watershed, considering lag time in selection, siting, and monitoring of management measures, selection of appropriate indicators, and designing effective monitoring programs to detect water quality response.

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