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

Abstract

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.

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Acknowledgements

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).

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Correspondence to Stephen M. Powers.

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Stephen Powers conceived of and designed the study, led the field and laboratory work, analyzed the data, conducted the modeling, and wrote the paper. Robert Johnson contributed substantially to the field work, lab work, and analysis of the data. Emily Stanley contributed substantially to the study design, and writing of the paper.

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Powers, S.M., Johnson, R.A. & Stanley, E.H. Nutrient Retention and the Problem of Hydrologic Disconnection in Streams and Wetlands. Ecosystems 15, 435–449 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9520-8

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Keywords

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