Effects of stream map resolution on measures of riparian buffer distribution and nutrient retention potential
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- Baker, M.E., Weller, D.E. & Jordan, T.E. Landscape Ecol (2007) 22: 973. doi:10.1007/s10980-007-9080-z
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Riparian ecosystems are interfaces between aquatic and terrestrial environments recognized for their nutrient interception potential in agricultural landscapes. Stream network maps from a broad range of map resolutions have been employed in watershed studies of riparian areas. However, map resolution may affect important attributes of riparian buffers, such as the connectivity between source lands and small stream channels missing in coarse resolution maps. We sought to understand the influence of changing stream map resolution on measures of the river network, near-stream land cover, and riparian metrics. Our objectives were: (1) to evaluate the influence of stream map resolution on measures of the stream network, the character and extent of near-stream zones, and riparian metrics; (2) to compare patterns of variation among different physiographic provinces; and (3) to explore how predictions of nutrient retention potential might be affected by the resolution of a stream map. We found that using fine resolution stream maps significantly increased our estimates of stream order, drainage density, and the proportion of watershed area occurring near a stream. Increasing stream map resolution reduced the mean distance to source areas as well as mean buffer width and increased the frequency of buffer gaps. Measures of percent land cover within 100 m of streams were less sensitive to stream map resolution. Overall, increasing stream map resolution led to reduced estimates of nutrient retention potential in riparian buffers. In some watersheds, switching from a coarse resolution to a fine resolution stream map completely changed our perception of a stream network from well buffered to largely unbuffered. Because previous, broad-scale analyses of riparian buffers used coarse-resolution stream maps, those studies may have overestimated landscape-level buffer prevalence and effectiveness. We present a case study of three watersheds to demonstrate that interactions among stream map resolution and land cover patterns make a dramatic difference in the perceived ability of riparian buffers to ameliorate effects of agricultural activities across whole watersheds. Moreover, stream map resolution affects inferences about whether retention occurs in streams or riparian zones.