, Volume 93, Issue 1, pp 91-116

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Dynamic modeling of nitrogen losses in river networks unravels the coupled effects of hydrological and biogeochemical processes

  • Richard B. AlexanderAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey Email author 
  • , John Karl BöhlkeAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey
  • , Elizabeth W. BoyerAffiliated withPennsylvania State University
  • , Mark B. DavidAffiliated withUniversity of Illinois
  • , Judson W. HarveyAffiliated withU.S. Geological Survey
  • , Patrick J. MulhollandAffiliated withOak Ridge National Laboratory
  • , Sybil P. SeitzingerAffiliated withRutgers University
  • , Craig R. TobiasAffiliated withUniversity of North Carolina
  • , Christina TonittoAffiliated withCornell University
    • , Wilfred M. WollheimAffiliated withUniversity of New Hampshire


The importance of lotic systems as sinks for nitrogen inputs is well recognized. A fraction of nitrogen in streamflow is removed to the atmosphere via denitrification with the remainder exported in streamflow as nitrogen loads. At the watershed scale, there is a keen interest in understanding the factors that control the fate of nitrogen throughout the stream channel network, with particular attention to the processes that deliver large nitrogen loads to sensitive coastal ecosystems. We use a dynamic stream transport model to assess biogeochemical (nitrate loadings, concentration, temperature) and hydrological (discharge, depth, velocity) effects on reach-scale denitrification and nitrate removal in the river networks of two watersheds having widely differing levels of nitrate enrichment but nearly identical discharges. Stream denitrification is estimated by regression as a nonlinear function of nitrate concentration, streamflow, and temperature, using more than 300 published measurements from a variety of US streams. These relations are used in the stream transport model to characterize nitrate dynamics related to denitrification at a monthly time scale in the stream reaches of the two watersheds. Results indicate that the nitrate removal efficiency of streams, as measured by the percentage of the stream nitrate flux removed via denitrification per unit length of channel, is appreciably reduced during months with high discharge and nitrate flux and increases during months of low-discharge and flux. Biogeochemical factors, including land use, nitrate inputs, and stream concentrations, are a major control on reach-scale denitrification, evidenced by the disproportionately lower nitrate removal efficiency in streams of the highly nitrate-enriched watershed as compared with that in similarly sized streams in the less nitrate-enriched watershed. Sensitivity analyses reveal that these important biogeochemical factors and physical hydrological factors contribute nearly equally to seasonal and stream-size related variations in the percentage of the stream nitrate flux removed in each watershed.


Denitrification Seasonal Nitrate model LINX NHD river network Nitrate loss Nitrate removal efficiency Anthropogenic nitrogen