, Volume 142, Issue 3, pp 395–411 | Cite as

Wetland floodplain flux: temporal and spatial availability of organic matter and dissolved nutrients in an unmodified river

  • Carla L. AtkinsonEmail author
  • Brian C. van Ee
  • YueHan Lu
  • Wenli Zhong


River ecosystem dynamics are strongly regulated by the surrounding watershed. The availability and sources of energy and nutrient resources that drive these systems are controlled by topography, climate, geology, and position in the watershed. Here we examined particulate and dissolved organic matter (POM and DOM, respectively) and nutrient concentrations across an entire watershed during multiple flow regimes in an unregulated, low gradient river with extensive floodplain forests. The objectives of the study were to: (1) determine the influence of watershed position and floodplain connectivity on POM, DOM, and nutrient concentrations; (2) examine the influence of flow variability on POM, DOM, and nutrient concentrations; and (3) develop an empirical rating curve to predict POM, DOM, and nutrient transport and flux. We sampled POM, DOM, and nutrient concentrations (ammonia, nitrate, nitrite and soluble reactive phosphorus) at ten sites across the Sipsey River watershed that varied in their degree of connectivity to the floodplain over a two-year period. Both watershed position and flow regime influenced POM, DOM, and nutrient concentrations. In particular, a large floodplain swamp in the middle of the watershed, the Sipsey Swamp, strongly controlled the relative availability of particulate and dissolved materials in the water. In the headwaters, there was a greater proportion of particulate material in suspension relative to dissolved carbon. While in the downstream reaches, both within and downstream of the Sipsey Swamp, DOC accompanied by greater molecular mass and more aromatic DOM was in greater quantity than particulate materials at high flows. Nutrient concentrations in the stream water tended to decline through the floodplain swamp across all flow conditions and tended to be lower in high flows. We demonstrate that floodplains can disrupt the upstream–downstream continuum by supplying a large quantity of allochthonous organic matter. Using long-term data we estimated the total annual flux of DOC and nitrate to range between 1221–6500 and 24–35 tonnes per year, respectively, between 2007 and 2017 with the highest flux rates occurring during high flow periods. Our study shows the complex dynamics of a natural floodplain river system and generally supports the flood pulse concept by highlighting the importance of wetland complexes and floodplain connectivity on material and nutrient transport. Description of organic matter and nutrient dynamics in natural low gradient rivers is critical to understanding production of organisms, food webs and ecosystem processes in the face of climate and land use changes.


Dissolved organic matter Seston Flood pulse Floodplain Ash-free dry mass Nutrient concentrations River continuum Stoichiometry 



This work would not have been possible without field assistance from Mark Dedmon, Zach Nickerson, and Monica Winebarger. Anne Belle was responsible for all the water chemistry analyses. The University of Alabama Center for Freshwater Studies, the Weyerhaueser Corporation, and the National Science Foundation DEB-1831512 provided support for this this project. Stephen Golladay provided helpful comments and suggestions on an earlier version of this manuscript. We appreciate the comments of two anonymous reviewers on a previous version of this manuscript.

Supplementary material

10533_2019_542_MOESM1_ESM.docx (276 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 276 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  • Carla L. Atkinson
    • 1
    Email author
  • Brian C. van Ee
    • 1
  • YueHan Lu
    • 2
  • Wenli Zhong
    • 2
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Biological SciencesUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Geological SciencesUniversity of AlabamaTuscaloosaUSA
  3. 3.College of Earth SciencesChengdu University of TechnologyChengduChina

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