Nonpoint pollution sources are strongly influenced by hydrology and are therefore sensitive to climate variability. Some pollutants entering aquatic ecosystems, e.g., nitrate, can be mitigated by in‐stream processes during transport through river networks. Whole river network nitrate retention is difficult to quantify with observations. High frequency, in situ nitrate sensors, deployed in nested locations within a single watershed, can improve estimates of both nonpoint inputs and aquatic retention at river network scales. We deployed a nested sensor network and associated sampling in the urbanizing Oyster River watershed in coastal New Hampshire, USA, to quantify storm event‐scale loading and retention at network scales. An end member analysis used the relative behavior of reactive nitrate and conservative chloride to infer river network fate of nitrate. In the headwater catchments, nitrate and chloride concentrations are both increasingly diluted with increasing storm size. At the mouth of the watershed, chloride is also diluted, but nitrate tended to increase. The end member analysis suggests that this pattern is the result of high retention during small storms (51–78%) that declines to zero during large storms. Although high frequency nitrate sensors did not alter estimates of fluxes over seasonal time periods compared to less frequent grab sampling, they provide the ability to estimate nitrate flux versus storm size at event scales that is critical for such analyses. Nested sensor networks can improve understanding of the controls of both loading and network scale retention, and therefore also improve management of nonpoint source pollution.


Earth Systems Research Center

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Water Resources Research


American Geophysical Union (AGU)

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This is an article published by AGU in Water Resources Research in 2017, available online: