, Volume 8, Issue 8, pp 871–884 | Cite as

N Retention in Urbanizing Headwater Catchments

  • Wilfred M. Wollheim
  • Brian A. Pellerin
  • Charles J. Vörösmarty
  • Charles S. Hopkinson
Original Articles


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.


watershed nitrogen retention export loading urban residential impervious 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  • Wilfred M. Wollheim
    • 1
    • 2
  • Brian A. Pellerin
    • 1
  • Charles J. Vörösmarty
    • 1
    • 2
  • Charles S. Hopkinson
    • 3
  1. 1.Water Systems Analysis Group, Complex Systems Research Center, Institute for Earth, Ocean, and SpaceUniversity of New HampshireDurham, New HampshireUSA
  2. 2.Earth Sciences DepartmentUniversity of New HampshireDurham, New HampshireUSA
  3. 3.Marine Biological LaboratoryEcosystems CenterUSA

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