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Tree trade-offs in stream restoration: impacts on riparian groundwater quality

Abstract

Riparian zones are a vital interface between land and stream and are often the focus of stream restoration efforts to reduce nutrient pollution in waterways. Restoration of degraded stream channels often requires the removal of mature trees during major physical alteration of the riparian zone to reshape streambank topography. We assessed the impact of tree removal on riparian groundwater quality over space and time. Twenty-nine wells were installed across 5 sites in watersheds of the Washington D.C. and Baltimore, Maryland, USA metropolitan areas. Study sites encompassed a chronosequence of restoration ages (5, 10 and 20 years) as well as unrestored comparisons. Groundwater wells were installed as transects of 3 perpendicular to the stream channel to estimate nutrient uptake along groundwater flow paths. Groundwater samples collected over a 2-year period (2018-2019) were analyzed for concentrations of dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC), dissolved organic carbon (DOC), total dissolved nitrogen (TDN), and dissolved components of calcium (Ca), potassium (K), magnesium (Mg), sodium (Na), sulfur (S) and other elements. Results showed some interesting patterns such as: (1) elevated concentrations of some nutrients and carbon in riparian groundwater of recently restored (5 year) sites; (2) decreasing linear trends in concentrations of TDN, K and S in groundwater during a 2 year shift from wet to dry conditions; (3) linear relationships between DOC (organic matter) and plant nutrients in groundwater suggesting the importance of plant uptake and biomass as sources and sinks of nutrients; (4) increasing concentrations in groundwater along hydrologic flow paths from uplands to streams in riparian zones where trees were recently cut, and opposite patterns where trees were not cut. Riparian zones appeared to act as sources or sinks of bioreactive elements based on tree removal. Mean TDN, DOC, and S, concentrations decreased by 78.6%, 12.3%, and 19.3% respectively through uncut riparian zones, but increased by 516.9%, 199.7%, and 34.5% respectively through the 5-year cut transects. Ecosystem recovery and an improvement in groundwater quality appeared to be achieved by 10-20 years after restoration. A better understanding of the effects of riparian tree removal on groundwater quality can inform strategies for minimizing unintended effects of stream restoration on groundwater chemistry.

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Availability of data and materials

Data can be found in Supporting Information and may be available upon request.

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Acknowledgements

Those who intermittently aided Kelsey Wood in digging wells, collecting samples, or filtering samples included Joseph Galella, William Nguyen, Tom Doody, Michael Dubbin, Hector Lopez, Jenna Reimer, Lainey Reed, Muhammad Khalid, and Margaret Houlihan.

Funding

This work was primarily supported by the Maryland State Highway Administration, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Montgomery County Department of the Environment, and the Chesapeake Bay Trust. Additional support was provided by Maryland Sea Grant R/WQ-6 SA75281870W.

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Contributions

Sujay Kaushal, Philippe Vidon and Kelsey Wood contributed to the study conception, design, and methodology. Joseph Galella aided in site research. Material preparation, sample collection, sample analysis, data collection and data analysis were performed by Kelsey Wood. Results were interpreted by Kelsey Wood, Sujay Kaushal, and Paul Mayer. The first draft of the manuscript was written by Kelsey Wood and all authors commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript. Funding was acquired by Sujay Kaushal and Philippe Vidon.

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Correspondence to Kelsey L. Wood.

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Wood, K.L., Kaushal, S.S., Vidon, P.G. et al. Tree trade-offs in stream restoration: impacts on riparian groundwater quality. Urban Ecosyst 25, 773–795 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-021-01182-8

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Keywords

  • Urban streams
  • Riparian zones
  • Groundwater chemistry
  • Stream restoration
  • Floodplains
  • Water quality
  • Chesapeake Bay