Improved methods for quantifying potential nutrient interception by riparian buffers
- Cite this article as:
- Baker, M.E., Weller, D.E. & Jordan, T.E. Landscape Ecol (2006) 21: 1327. doi:10.1007/s10980-006-0020-0
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Efforts to quantify the effects of riparian buffers on watershed nutrient discharges have been confounded by a commonly used analysis, which estimates buffer potential as the percentage of forest or wetland within a fixed distance of streams. Effective landscape metrics must instead be developed based on a clear conceptual model and quantified at the appropriate spatial scale. We develop new metrics for riparian buffers in two stages of increasing functional specificity to ask: (1) Which riparian metrics are more distinct from measures of whole watershed land cover? (2) Do functional riparian metrics provide different information than fixed-distance metrics? (3) How do these patterns vary within and among different physiographic settings? Using publicly available geographic data, we studied 503 watersheds in four different physiographic provinces of the Chesapeake Bay Drainage. In addition to traditional fixed-distance measures, we calculated mean buffer width, gap frequency, and measures of variation in buffer width using both “unconstrained” metrics and “flow-path” metrics constrained by surface topography. There were distinct patterns of relationship between watershed and near-stream land cover in each physiographic province and strong correlations with watershed land cover confounded fixed-distance metrics. Flow-path metrics were more independent of watershed land cover than either fixed-distance or unconstrained measures, but both functional metrics provided greater detail, interpretability, and flexibility than the fixed-distance approach. Potential applications of the new metrics include exploring the potential for land cover patterns to influence water quality, accounting for buffers in statistical nutrient models, quantifying spatial patterns for process-based modeling, and targeting management actions such as buffer restoration.