Environmental Management

, Volume 52, Issue 5, pp 1161–1176 | Cite as

Identifying Riparian Buffer Effects on Stream Nitrogen in Southeastern Coastal Plain Watersheds

  • Jay R. ChristensenEmail author
  • Maliha S. Nash
  • Anne Neale


Within the Southeastern (SE) Coastal Plain of the U.S., numerous freshwaters and estuaries experience eutrophication with significant nutrient contributions by agricultural non-point sources (NPS). Riparian buffers are often used to reduce agricultural NPS yet the effect of buffers in the watershed is difficult to quantify. Using corrected Akaike information criterion (AICc) and model averaging, we compared flow-path riparian buffer models with land use/land cover (LULC) models in 24 watersheds from the SE Coastal Plain to determine the ability of riparian buffers to reduce or mitigate stream total nitrogen concentrations (TNC). Additional models considered the relative importance of headwaters and artificial agricultural drainage in the Coastal Plain. A buffer model which included cropland and non-buffered cropland best explained stream TNC (R 2 = 0.75) and was five times more likely to be the correct model than the LULC model. The model average predicted that current buffers removed 52 % of nitrogen from the edge-of-field and 45 % of potential nitrogen from the average SE Coastal Plain watershed. On average, 26 % of stream nitrogen leaked through buffered cropland. Our study suggests that stream TNC could potentially be reduced by 34 % if buffers were adequately restored on all cropland. Such estimates provide realistic expectations of nitrogen removal via buffers to watershed managers as they attempt to meet water quality goals. In addition, model comparisons of AICc values indicated that non-headwater buffers may contribute little to stream TNC. Model comparisons also indicated that artificial drainage should be considered when accessing buffers and stream nitrogen.


Agricultural drainage Agricultural headwaters Flow-path analyses Riparian buffer metrics Total nitrogen 



The authors greatly appreciate the data and assistance provided by Anne Hoos and others within the USGS Southeast SPARROW project. We thank Robin Dennis for CMAQ data and his input and Michael Jackson, Caroline Erikson, and Donald Ebert for advice and help with GIS work. We thank Megan Mehaffey, Matthew Baker, anonymous reviewers, and editors for their thoughtful comments on previous drafts. This project was supported by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Although this work was reviewed by EPA and approved for publication, it may not necessarily reflect official Agency policy.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York (outside the USA) 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jay R. Christensen
    • 1
    Email author
  • Maliha S. Nash
    • 1
  • Anne Neale
    • 2
  1. 1.National Exposure Research LaboratoryU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyLas VegasUSA
  2. 2.National Exposure Research LaboratoryU.S. Environmental Protection AgencyResearch Triangle ParkUSA

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