Landscape Ecology

, 26:1151 | Cite as

Influence of land use on water quality in a tropical landscape: a multi-scale analysis

  • María Uriarte
  • Charles B. Yackulic
  • Yili Lim
  • Javier A. Arce-Nazario
Research Article


There is a pressing need to understand the consequences of human activities, such as land transformations, on watershed ecosystem services. This is a challenging task because different indicators of water quality and yield are expected to vary in their responsiveness to large versus local-scale heterogeneity in land use and land cover (LUC). Here we rely on water quality data collected between 1977 and 2000 from dozens of gauge stations in Puerto Rico together with precipitation data and land cover maps to (1) quantify impacts of spatial heterogeneity in LUC on several water quality indicators; (2) determine the spatial scale at which this heterogeneity influences water quality; and (3) examine how antecedent precipitation modulates these impacts. Our models explained 30–58% of observed variance in water quality metrics. Temporal variation in antecedent precipitation and changes in LUC between measurements periods rather than spatial variation in LUC accounted for the majority of variation in water quality. Urbanization and pasture development generally degraded water quality while agriculture and secondary forest re-growth had mixed impacts. The spatial scale over which LUC influenced water quality differed across indicators. Turbidity and dissolved oxygen (DO) responded to LUC in large-scale watersheds, in-stream nitrogen concentrations to LUC in riparian buffers of large watersheds, and fecal matter content and in-stream phosphorus concentration to LUC at the sub-watershed scale. Stream discharge modulated impacts of LUC on water quality for most of the metrics. Our findings highlight the importance of considering multiple spatial scales for understanding the impacts of human activities on watershed ecosystem services.


Forest transition Urbanization Watershed ecosystem services Agricultural abandonment Puerto Rico 



We thank F. N. Scatena, E. M. Dueker, J. P. Metzger, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful suggestions to improve the manuscript. This research was funded by a gift from the Lau Family Foundation to Columbia University, NSF awards (BSR-8811902, DEB-9411973, DEB-008538, DEB-0218039, and DEB-0620910) to the Luquillo Long-Term Ecological Research Program, and an seed funds to J.A.N. from the Instituto de Investigaciones Interdisciplinarias at the University of Puerto Rico, Cayey.

Supplementary material

10980_2011_9642_MOESM1_ESM.docx (24 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 24 kb)
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Supplementary material 2 (DOCX 14 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • María Uriarte
    • 1
  • Charles B. Yackulic
    • 1
  • Yili Lim
    • 1
  • Javier A. Arce-Nazario
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental BiologyColumbia UniversityNew YorkUSA
  2. 2.Instituto de Investigaciones InterdisciplinariasUniversidad de Puerto RicoCayeySpain

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