N Retention in Urbanizing Headwater Catchments


Urbanization can potentially alter watershed nitrogen (N) retention via combined changes in N loading, water runoff, and N processing potential. We examined N export and retention for two headwater catchments (∼4 km2) of contrasting land use (16% vs. 79% urban) in the Plum Island Ecosystem (PIE-LTER) watershed, MA. The study period included a dry year (2001–2002 water year) and a wet year (2002–2003 water year). We generalized results by comparing dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) concentrations from 16 additional headwater catchments (0.6–4.2 km2) across a range of urbanization (6–90%). Water runoff was 25–40% higher in the urban compared to the forested catchment, corresponding with an increased proportion of impervious surfaces (25% vs. 8%). Estimated N loading was 45% higher and N flux 6.5 times higher in the urban than in the forested catchment. N retention (1 − measured stream export / estimated loading) was 65–85% in the urban site and 93–97% in the forested site, with lower retention rates during the wetter year. The mechanisms by which N retention stays relatively high in urban systems are poorly known. We show that N retention is related to the amount of impervious surface in a catchment because of associated changes in N loading (maximized at moderate levels of imperviousness), runoff (which continues to increase with imperviousness), and biological processes that retain N. Continued declines in N retention due to urbanization have important negative implications for downstream aquatic systems including the coastal zone.


Earth Systems Research Center

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© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2005