Potential effects of leaf litter on water quality in urban watersheds

Abstract

Leaf litter plays a critical role in regulating ecological functions in headwater forest streams, whereas the effects of leaves on water quality in urbanized streams are not fully understood. This study examined the potential importance of leaf litter for the release and transformations of organic carbon and nutrients in urban streams, and compared the effects with other types of natural organic substrates (periphyton and stream sediment). Nutrients and organic carbon were leached from senescent leaves of 6 tree species in the laboratory with deionized water, and maximal releases, leaching rate constants, composition and bioavailability of the leached dissolved organic carbon (DOC) were determined. Stream substrates (leaf debris, rocks with periphyton, and sediment) were seasonally collected from urban and forest reference streams of the NSF Baltimore Long-term Ecological Research Site and incubated with overlying stream water to estimate areal fluxes of DOC and nitrogen. Leaf litter leaching showed large ranges in maximal releases of DOC (7.0–131 mg g−1), dissolved organic nitrogen (DON; 0.07–1.39 mg g−1) and total dissolved phosphorus (TDP; 0.14–0.70 mg g−1) among tree species. DOC leaching rate constants, carbon to nitrogen ratios, and DOC bioavailability were all correlated with organic matter quality indicated by fluorescence spectroscopy. Results from substrate incubation experiments showed far higher DOC and DON release and nitrate retention with leaf debris than with sediment, or rocks with periphyton. DOC release from leaf debris was positively correlated with stream nitrate retention at residential and urban sites, with the highest values observed during the fall and lowest during the summer. This study suggests the potential importance of leaf litter quantity and quality on fostering DOC and nutrient release and transformations in urban streams. It also suggests that species-specific impacts of leaves should be considered in riparian buffer and stream restoration strategies.

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Acknowledgments

This research was supported by NSF Awards DBI 0640300 and CBET 1058502, NASA grant NASA NNX11AM28G, Maryland Sea Grant Awards SA7528085-U, R/WS-2 and NA05OAR4171042, EPA NNEMS Award 2010-308, the U.S. EPA Office of Research and Development, and Baltimore Ecosystem Study LTER project (NSF DEB-0423476). We thank Tammy Newcomer for her valuable comments and help during manuscript preparation. We thank Bill Stack and Karen Cappiella for helpful discussions regarding potential effects of leaves on water quality.

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Correspondence to Shuiwang Duan.

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Duan, S., Delaney-Newcomb, K., Kaushal, S.S. et al. Potential effects of leaf litter on water quality in urban watersheds. Biogeochemistry 121, 61–80 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10533-014-0016-9

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Keywords

  • Nutrient
  • Organic carbon
  • Transformation
  • Leaf litter
  • Restoration
  • Urban watershed continuum