The concept of critical source areas of phosphorus (P) loss produced by coinciding source and transport factors has been studied since the mid 1990s. It is widely recognized that identification of such areas has led to targeting of management strategies and conservation practices that more effectively mitigate P transfers from agricultural landscapes to surface waters. Such was the purpose of P Indices and more complex nonpoint source models. Despite their widespread adoption across the U.S., a lack of water quality improvement in certain areas (e.g. Chesapeake Bay Watershed and some of its tributaries) has challenged critical source area management to be more restrictive. While the role of soil and applied P has been easy to define and quantify, representation of transport processes still remains more elusive. Even so, the release of P from land management and in-stream buffering contribute to a legacy effect that can overwhelm the benefits of critical source area management, particularly as scale increases (e.g. the Chesapeake Bay). Also, conservation tillage that reduces erosion can lead to vertical stratification of soil P and ultimately increased dissolved P loss. Clearly, complexities imparted by spatially variable landscapes, climate, and system response will require iterative monitoring and adaptation, to develop locally relevant solutions. To overcome the challenges we have outlined, critical source area management must involve development of a ‘toolbox’ that contains several approaches to address the underlying problem of localized excesses of P and provide both spatial and temporal management options. To a large extent, this may be facilitated with the use of GIS and digital elevation models. Irrespective of the tool used, however, there must be a two-way dialogue between science and policy to limit the softening of technically rigorous and politically difficult approaches to truly reducing P losses.

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