, Volume 108, Issue 1–3, pp 149–169 | Cite as

Temporal variation in organic carbon spiraling in Midwestern agricultural streams

  • Natalie A. Griffiths
  • Jennifer L. Tank
  • Todd V. Royer
  • Thomas J. Warrner
  • Therese C. Frauendorf
  • Emma J. Rosi-Marshall
  • Matt R. Whiles


Inland freshwaters transform and retain up to half of the carbon that enters from the terrestrial environment and have recently been recognized as important components of regional and global carbon budgets. However, the importance of small streams to these carbon budgets is not well understood due to the lack of globally-distributed data, especially from streams draining agricultural landscapes. We quantified organic carbon pools and heterotrophic metabolism seasonally in 6 low-order streams draining row-crop fields in northwestern Indiana, USA, and used these data to examine patterns in organic carbon spiraling lengths (SOC; km), downstream velocities (VOC; m/d), and turnover rates (KOC; day−1). There were seasonal differences in SOC, with the longest spiraling lengths in winter (range: 7.7–54.4 km) and the shortest in early and late summer (range: 0.2–9.0 km). This seasonal pattern in SOC was primarily driven by differences in discharge, suggesting that hydrology tightly controls the fate of organic carbon in these streams. KOC did not differ seasonally, and variability (range: 0.0007–0.0193 day−1) was controlled by differences in stream water soluble reactive phosphorus concentrations. Compared to previous studies conducted primarily in forested streams, agricultural streams tended to be less retentive of organic carbon. These systems function predominantly as conduits transporting organic carbon to downstream ecosystems, except during low, stable-flow periods (i.e., late summer) when agricultural streams can be as retentive of organic carbon as forested headwaters. High organic carbon retention in the late summer has implications for coupled carbon and nitrogen cycling (i.e., denitrification), which may play an important role in removing nitrate from stream water during periods of low flow.


Organic carbon spiraling Streams Agriculture Channelization Retention Maize Filamentous algae Dissolved organic carbon Heterotrophic respiration 



We thank C. Chambers, J. Pokelsek, and M. Stephen for field and laboratory assistance. We also thank private land owners for facilitating access to study sites. Dr. R. O. Hall Jr. and two anonymous reviewers provided many helpful comments that greatly improved an earlier version of this manuscript. This project was supported by the National Science Foundation (DEB-0415984). N. A. Griffiths was also supported by a Post-Graduate Scholarship (PGS-D) from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.


  1. APHA [American Public Health Association] (1995) Standard methods for the examination of water and wastewater, 19th edition. American Public Health Association, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  2. Atkinson BL, Grace MR, Hart BT, Vanderkruk KEN (2008) Sediment instability affects the rate and location of primary production and respiration in a sand-bed stream. J N Am Benthol Soc 27:581–592CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Battin TJ, Luyssaert S, Kaplan LA, Aufdenkampe AK, Richter A, Tranvik LJ (2009) The boundless carbon cycle. Nat Geosci 2:598–600CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Benfield EF (1997) Comparison of litterfall input to streams. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:104–108CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Blann KL, Anderson JL, Sands GR, Vondracek B (2009) Effects of agricultural drainage on aquatic ecosystems: a review. Crit Rev Env Sci Technol 39:909–1001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bott TL (2006) Primary productivity and community respiration. In: Hauer FR, Lamberti GA (eds) Methods in stream ecology, 2nd edn. Elsevier, San Diego, pp 663–690Google Scholar
  7. Bott TL, Brock JT, Dunn CS, Naiman RJ, Ovink RW, Petersen RC (1985) Benthic community metabolism in four temperate stream systems: an inter-biome comparison and evaluation of the river continuum concept. Hydrobiologia 123:3–45CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chambers CP, Whiles MR, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Tank JL, Royer TV, Griffiths NA, Evans-White MA, Stojak AJ (2010) Responses of stream macroinvertebrates to Bt maize leaf detritus. Ecol Appl 20:1949–1960CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Cole JJ, Prairie YT, Caraco NF, McDowell WH, Tranvik LJ, Striegl RG, Duarte CM, Kortelainen P, Downing JA, Middelburg JJ, Melack J (2007) Plumbing the global carbon cycle: integrating inland waters into the terrestrial carbon budget. Ecosystems 10:171–184CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Cronan CS, Piampiano JT, Patterson HH (1999) Influence of land use and hydrology on exports of carbon and nitrogen in a Maine River Basin. J Environ Qual 28:953–961CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cushing CE (1997) Organic matter dynamics in Rattlesnake Springs, Washington, USA. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:39–43CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Dahm CN, Baker MA, Moore DI, Thibault JR (2003) Coupled biogeochemical and hydrological responses of streams and rivers to drought. Freshw Biol 48:1219–1231CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dalzell BJ, Filley TR, Harbor JM (2005) Flood pulse influences on terrestrial organic matter export from an agricultural watershed. J Geophys Res 110:G02011CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dalzell BJ, Filley TR, Harbor JM (2007) The role of hydrology in annual organic carbon loads and terrestrial organic matter export from a midwestern agricultural watershed. Geochim Cosmochim Acta 71:1448–1462CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Dodds WK, Gudder DA (1992) The ecology of Cladophora. J Phycol 28:415–427CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Dodds WK, Hutson RE, Eichem AC, Evans MA, Gudder DA, Fritz KM, Gray L (1996) The relationship of floods, drying, flow and light to primary production and producer biomass in a prairie stream. Hydrobiologia 333:151–159CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Evans RO, Bass KL, Burchelt MR, Hinson RD, Johnson R, Doxey M (2007) Management alternatives to enhance water quality and ecological function of channelized streams and drainage canals. J Soil Water Conserv 62:308–320Google Scholar
  18. Fellows CS, Valett HM, Dahm CN (2001) Whole-stream metabolism in two montane streams: contribution of the hyporheic zone. Limnol Oceanogr 46:523–531CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fellows CS, Valett HM, Dahm CN, Mulholland PJ, Thomas SA (2006) Coupling nutrient uptake and energy flow in headwater streams. Ecosystems 9:788–804CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Fisher SG, Likens GE (1973) Energy flow in Bear Brook, New Hampshire: an integrative approach to stream ecosystem metabolism. Ecol Monogr 43:421–439CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fisher SG, Gray LJ, Grimm NB, Busch DE (1982) Temporal succession in a desert stream ecosystem following flash flooding. Ecol Monogr 52:93–110CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Goolsby DA, Battaglin WA, Aulenbach BT, Hooper RP (2001) Nitrogen input to the Gulf of Mexico. J Environ Qual 30:329–336CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Gordon RB (1936) A preliminary vegetation map of Indiana. Am Midl Nat 17:866–877CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gore JA (2006) Discharge measurements and streamflow analysis. In: Hauer FR, Lamberti GA (eds) Methods in stream ecology, 2nd edn. Elsevier, San Diego, pp 51–78Google Scholar
  25. Gray LJ (1997) Organic matter dynamics in Kings Creek, Konza Prairie, Kansas, USA. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:50–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Griffiths NA, Tank JL, Royer TV, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Whiles MR, Chambers CP, Frauendorf TC, Evans-White MA (2009) Rapid decomposition of maize detritus in agricultural headwater streams. Ecol Appl 19:133–142CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hill BH, Herlihy AT, Kaufmann PR, Sinsabaugh RL (1998) Sediment microbial respiration in a synoptic survey of mid-Atlantic region streams. Freshw Biol 39:493–501CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Hill BH, Hall RK, Husby P, Herlihy AT, Dunne M (2000) Interregional comparisons of sediment microbial respiration in streams. Freshw Biol 44:213–222CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Hoellein TJ, Tank JL, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Entrekin SA, Lamberti GA (2007) Controls on spatial and temporal variation of nutrient uptake in three Michigan headwater streams. Limnol Oceanogr 52:1964–1977CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Hoellein TJ, Tank JL, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Entrekin SA (2009) Temporal variation in substratum-specific rates of N uptake and metabolism and their contribution at the stream-reach scale. J N Am Benthol Soc 28:305–318CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Horton RE (1945) Erosional development of streams and their drainage basins: hydrophysical approach to quantitative morphology. Geol Soc Am Bull 56:275–370CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Jones JB, Schade JD, Fisher SG, Grimm NB (1997) Organic matter dynamics in Sycamore Creek, a desert stream in Arizona, USA. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:78–82CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Kaplan LA, Bott TL (1982) Diel fluctuations of DOC generated by algae in a piedmont stream. Limnol Oceanogr 27:1091–1100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Kaushal SS, Groffman PM, Mayer PM, Striz E, Gold AJ (2008) Effects of stream restoration on denitrification in an urbanizing watershed. Ecol Appl 18:789–804CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Kosinski RJ (1984) A comparison of the accuracy and precision of several open-water oxygen productivity techniques. Hydrobiologia 119:139–148CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Landwehr K, Rhoads BL (2003) Depositional response of a headwater stream to channelization, east central Illinois, USA. River Res Appl 19:77–100CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Leopold LB, Wolman MG, Miller JP (1964) Fluvial processes in geomorphology. W.H. Freeman and Company, San FranciscoGoogle Scholar
  38. Lubowski RN, Vesterby M, Bucholtz S, Baez A, Roberts MJ (2006) Major uses of land in the United States, 2002 Economic Information Bulletin Number 14. Economic Research Service, United States Department of Agriculture, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  39. McIntire CD, Gregory SV, Steinman AD, Lamberti GA (1996) Modeling benthic algal communities: an example from stream ecology. In: Stevenson RJ, Bothwell ML, Lowe RL (eds) Algal ecology: freshwater benthic systems. Academic Press, San Diego, pp 669–704Google Scholar
  40. Menninger HL, Palmer MA (2007) Herbs and grasses as an allochthonous resource in open-canopy headwater streams. Freshw Biol 52:1689–1699CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Meyer JL, Edwards RT (1990) Ecosystem metabolism and turnover of organic carbon along a blackwater river continuum. Ecology 71:668–677CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Minshall GW (1978) Autotrophy in stream ecosystems. Bioscience 28:767–770CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Minshall GW, Petersen RC, Cummins KW, Bott TL, Sedell JR, Cushing CE, Vannote RL (1983) Interbiome comparison of stream ecosystem dynamics. Ecol Monogr 53:1–25CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Minshall GW, Petersen RC, Bott TL, Cushing CE, Cummins KW, Vannote RL, Sedel JR (1992) Stream ecosystem dynamics of the Salmon River, Idaho: an 8th-order system. J N Am Benthol Soc 11:111–137CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Mulholland PJ (1997a) Dissolved organic matter concentration and flux in streams. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:131–141CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Mulholland PJ (1997b) Organic matter dynamics in the West Fork of Walker Branch, Tennessee, USA. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:61–67CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Mulholland PJ, Fellows CS, Tank JL, Grimm NB, Webster JR, Hamilton SK, Marti E, Ashkenas L, Bowden WB, Dodds WK, McDowell WH, Paul MJ, Peterson BJ (2001) Inter-biome comparison of factors controlling stream metabolism. Freshw Biol 46:1503–1517CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Munson SA, Carey AE (2004) Organic matter sources and transport in an agriculturally dominated temperate watershed. Appl Geochem 19:1111–1121CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Murphy J, Riley JP (1962) A modified single solution method for determination of phosphate in natural waters. Anal Chim Acta 26:31–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Naiman RJ (1983) A geomorphic approach for examining the role of periphyton in large watersheds. In: Wetzel RG (ed) Periphyton of freshwaters. Dr. W. Junk Publishers, The Hague, pp 191–198CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Naiman RJ, Melillo JM, Lock MA, Ford TE, Reice SR (1987) Longitudinal patterns of ecosystem processes and community structure in a subarctic river continuum. Ecology 68:1139–1156CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. NASS [National Agricultural Statistics Service] (2007) Census of agriculture county profile: Benton, Indiana. Indiana Agricultural Statistics Service, United States Department of Agriculture, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  53. NASS [National Agricultural Statistics Service] (2009) Acreage. Agricultural Statistics Board. United States Department of Agriculture, WashingtonGoogle Scholar
  54. Newbold JD, Mulholland PJ, Elwood JW, O’Neill RV (1982) Organic carbon spiralling in stream ecosystems. Oikos 38:266–272CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Odum HT (1956) Primary production in flowing waters. Limnol Oceanogr 1:102–117CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Opdyke MR, David MB, Rhoads BL (2006) Influence of geomorphological variability in channel characteristics on sediment denitrification in agricultural streams. J Environ Qual 35:2103–2112CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Petersen RC (1986) In situ particle generation in a southern Swedish stream. Limnol Oceanogr 31:432–437CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Powell GE, Ward AD, Mecklenburg DE, Jayakaran AD (2007) Two-stage channel systems: part 1, a practical approach for sizing agricultural ditches. J Soil Water Conserv 62:277–286Google Scholar
  59. Rabalais NN, Turner RE, Wiseman WJ (2002) Gulf of Mexico hypoxia, a.k.a. “The dead zone”. Annu Rev Ecol Syst 33:235–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Roberts BJ, Mulholland PJ, Hill WR (2007) Multiple scales of temporal variability in ecosystem metabolism rates: results from 2 years of continuous monitoring in a forested headwater stream. Ecosystems 10:588–606CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. Rosi-Marshall EJ, Tank JL, Royer TV, Whiles MR, Evans-White M, Chambers C, Griffiths NA, Pokelsek J, Stephen ML (2007) Toxins in transgenic crop byproducts may affect headwater stream ecosystems. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 104:16204–16208CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Royer TV, David MB (2005) Export of dissolved organic carbon from agricultural streams in Illinois, USA. Aquat Sci 67:465–471Google Scholar
  63. Royer TV, Tank JL, David MB (2004) Transport and fate of nitrate in headwater agricultural streams in Illinois. J Environ Qual 33:1296–1304CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Schaller JL, Royer TV, David MB, Tank JL (2004) Denitrification associated with plants and sediments in an agricultural stream. J N Am Benthol Soc 23:667–676CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Sinsabaugh RL (1997) Large-scale trends for stream benthic respiration. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:119–122CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Solorzano L (1969) Determination of ammonia in natural waters by phenolhypochlorite method. Limnol Oceanogr 14:799–801CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Stagliano DM, Whiles MR (2002) Macroinvertebrate production and trophic structure in a tallgrass prairie headwater stream. J N Am Benthol Soc 21:97–113CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Suberkropp K, Klug MJ (1980) The maceration of deciduous leaf litter by aquatic hyphomycetes. Can J Bot 58:1025–1031CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. SYSTAT (2007) SYSTAT version 12.0. Systat Software, San JoseGoogle Scholar
  70. Tank JL, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Griffiths NA, Entrekin SA, Stephen ML (2010) A review of allochthonous organic matter dynamics and metabolism in streams. J N Am Benthol Soc 29:118–146Google Scholar
  71. Taylor BW, Flecker AS, Hall RO (2006) Loss of a harvested fish species disrupts carbon flow in a diverse tropical river. Science 313:833–836CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Thomas SA, Royer TV, Snyder EB, Davis JC (2005) Organic carbon spiraling in an Idaho river. Aquat Sci 67:424–433Google Scholar
  73. Uehlinger U, Konig C, Reichert P (2000) Variability of photosynthesis-irradiance curves and ecosystem respiration in a small river. Freshw Biol 44:493–507CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Vidon P, Wagner LE, Soyeux E (2008) Changes in the character of DOC in streams during storms in two Midwestern watersheds with contrasting land uses. Biogeochemistry 88:257–270CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Wallace JB, Webster JR (1996) The role of macroinvertebrates in stream ecosystem function. Annu Rev Entomol 41:115–139CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Wallace JB, Eggert SL, Meyer JL, Webster JR (1999) Effects of resource limitation on a detrital-based ecosystem. Ecol Monogr 69:409–442CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Ward GM (1984) Size distribution and lignin content of fine particulate organic matter (FPOM) from microbially processed leaves in an artificial stream. Verh Int Ver Theor Angew Limnol 12:1893–1898Google Scholar
  78. Warrner TJ, Royer TV, Tank JL, Griffiths NA, Rosi-Marshall EJ, Whiles MR (2009) Dissolved organic carbon in streams from artificially drained and intensively farmed watersheds in Indiana, USA. Biogeochemistry 95:295–307CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Webster JR, Meyer JL (1997) Organic matter budgets for streams: a synthesis. J N Am Benthol Soc 16:141–161CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Webster JR, Wallace JB, Benfield EF (1995) Organic processes in streams of the eastern United States. In: Cushing CE, Cummins KW, Minshall GW (eds) Rivers and stream ecosystems. Elsevier, New York, pp 117–187Google Scholar
  81. Webster JR, Benfield EF, Ehrman TP, Schaeffer MA, Tank JL, Hutchens JJ, D’Angelo DJ (1999) What happens to allochthonous material that falls into streams? A synthesis of new and published information from Coweeta. Freshw Biol 41:687–705CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Welch WH (1930) Forest and prairie, Benton County, Indiana. Proc Indiana Acad Sci 39:67–72Google Scholar
  83. Wiley MJ, Osborne LL, Larimore RW (1990) Longitudinal structure of an agricultural prairie river system and its relationship to current stream ecosystem theory. Can J Fish Aquat Sci 47:373–384CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. Winter JG, Duthie HC (2000) Stream biomonitoring at an agricultural test site using benthic algae. Can J Bot 78:1319–1325Google Scholar
  85. Young RG, Huryn AD (1997) Longitudinal patterns of organic matter transport and turnover along a New Zealand grassland river. Freshw Biol 38:93–107CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Young RG, Huryn AD (1999) Effects of land use on stream metabolism and organic matter turnover. Ecol Appl 9:1359–1376CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Young RG, Matthaei CD, Townsend CR (2008) Organic matter breakdown and ecosystem metabolism: functional indicators for assessing river ecosystem health. J N Am Benthol Soc 27:605–625CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Zucker LA, Brown LC (1998) Agricultural drainage: water quality impacts and subsurface drainage studies in the Midwest (Bulletin 871–98). The Ohio State University, ColumbusGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Natalie A. Griffiths
    • 1
    • 5
  • Jennifer L. Tank
    • 1
  • Todd V. Royer
    • 2
  • Thomas J. Warrner
    • 2
  • Therese C. Frauendorf
    • 1
    • 6
  • Emma J. Rosi-Marshall
    • 3
    • 7
  • Matt R. Whiles
    • 4
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of Notre DameNotre DameUSA
  2. 2.School of Public and Environmental AffairsIndiana UniversityBloomingtonUSA
  3. 3.Department of BiologyLoyola University ChicagoChicagoUSA
  4. 4.Department of Zoology and Center for EcologySouthern Illinois UniversityCarbondaleUSA
  5. 5.Environmental Sciences DivisionOak Ridge National LaboratoryOak RidgeUSA
  6. 6.Department of Zoology and Center for EcologySouthern Illinois UniversityCarbondaleUSA
  7. 7.Cary Institute of Ecosystem StudiesMillbrookUSA

Personalised recommendations