Patterns, pace, and processes of water-quality variability in a long-studied estuary.
Environmental time series have rich information content that is invaluable for measuring and understanding changes over time and guiding policies to manage change. I extracted information from measurements of 10 water-quality constituents in upper San Francisco Bay from 1975 to 2016, one of the longest observational records in a U.S. estuary. Changes were detected at every time scale captured by monthly sampling. Long-term trends included increased ammonium (+53%), nitrate + nitrate (+50%), silicate (+14%), Secchi depth (+42%), and decreased chlorophyll a (Chl a) (-74%) and suspended particulate matter (-45%). Changes at the decadal scale included abrupt shifts (Chl a, nitrate + nitrite) and oscillations between shorter trends of increase and decrease (Secchi depth, phosphate). Long-term trends were not expressed equally across all seasons, and seasonal patterns of change varied across constituents. These examples illustrate key features of environmental variability at the land-sea interface: (1) water-quality components change continually at time scales from months to decades; (2) patterns of seasonal, multiyear, and multidecadal change are complex and vary across constituents; (3) primary drivers of change are freshwater inflow, the master regulator of estuarine dynamics, and human activities such as river damming, water diversions, wastewater discharge, environmental policies, and species introductions; (4) extracting the full information content of time series requires multiple analyses, each revealing a different layer of insight into how changes develop over time; (5) water-quality variability is nonstationary, so future changes cannot be forecast reliably; (6) repeated observation is an essential method of Earth system science with applications in the design and performance measures of environmental policies.