, Volume 15, Issue 3, pp 435–449 | Cite as

Nutrient Retention and the Problem of Hydrologic Disconnection in Streams and Wetlands

  • Stephen M. Powers
  • Robert A. Johnson
  • Emily H. Stanley


Some aquatic systems have disproportionately high nutrient processing rates, and may be important to nutrient retention within river networks. However, the contribution of such biogeochemical hot spots also depends on water residence time and hydrologic connections within the system. We examined the balance of these factors in a comparative study of nitrate (NO3 ) uptake across stream and flow-through wetland reaches of northern Wisconsin, USA. The experimental design compared NO3 uptake at different levels: the ecosystem level, for reaches (n = 9) consisting of morphologically contrasting subreaches (SLOW, low mean water velocity; REF, reference, or higher mean water velocity); the sub-ecosystem level, for subreaches consisting of morphologically contrasting zones (TS, transient storage zone; MC, main channel zone). SLOW subreaches had 45% lower ecosystem-level uptake rate (K, t−1) on average, indicating reduced uptake efficiency in flow-through wetlands relative to streams. The four largest K values (total n = 24) also occurred in REF subreaches. TS:MC uptake rate varied (range 0.1–6.0), but MC zones consistently accounted for most NO3 uptake by the ecosystem. In turn, TS influence was limited by a tradeoff between TS zone uptake rate and the strength of TSMC hydrologic connection (α or F med). Additional modeling of published hydrologic parameter sets showed that strong MC dominance of uptake (>75% of total uptake), at the scale of solute release methods (meters to kilometers, hours to days), is common among streams and rivers. Our results emphasize that aquatic nutrient retention is the outcome of a balance involving nutrient uptake efficiency, water residence time, and the strength of hydrologic connections between nutrient sources and sinks. This balance restricts the influence of hydrologically disconnected biota on nutrient transport, and could apply to diverse ecosystem types and sizes.


stream wetland river nutrient uptake ecosystem hydrologic connectivity transient storage nitrate nitrogen 



Laboratory assistance and field assistance were provided by James Thoyre, Page Mieritz, Justin Zik, Alex Bilgri, James Sustachek, and Colleen Sylvester. Stephen Carpenter provided valuable comments on the manuscript. Work was supported by NSF funding of the North Temperate Lakes Long-term Ecological Research (LTER) Program, and State of Wisconsin Groundwater Research and Monitoring Program (project #WR07R003).

Supplementary material

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Supplementary material 1 (DOC 143 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOC 593 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen M. Powers
    • 1
  • Robert A. Johnson
    • 2
  • Emily H. Stanley
    • 1
  1. 1.Center for LimnologyUniversity of Wisconsin MadisonMadisonUSA
  2. 2.Department of Environmental SciencesUniversity of VirginiaCharlottesvilleUSA

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